Are we going to make a habit of sending lone Hoosier fanatics to join wacko militant movements? First, it was Thomas Piatek of Whiting, who joined the Hutaree militia of Michigan, who either “talked idly about” or “plotted” violence against police officers. Now it's Douglas Wright of Indianapolis, said to be a “group leader” of the Ohio anarchists who wanted to blow up a bridge linking two wealthy Cleveland suburbs.
Both groups were infiltrated by FBI informants, and the cases raise troubling questions about how many of our rights we have to give up to get a feeling of security. This is obviously becoming a preferred tool of the government – similar infiltrations have happened in Massachusetts, Oregon, New York and Texas – so we need to keep having this conversation.
In the Michigan case, a judge threw out all of the most serious charges because she thought the government had overreacted to “mere words” that did not “rise to the level sufficient to show a conspiracy.” And federal agents seemed to cross a line between merely nabbing the men for things they would have done anyway and actually pushing them into taking the actions.
There were more than words in the Ohio case, so the government might be on firmer ground. The anarchists bought what they thought were explosives from an FBI informant and actually planted them and tried to detonate them. What they had actually gotten, though, was inert material. Did the government act properly, or was there entrapment? Stay tuned.
As we have said here before, the “war on terror” has caused a needed re-examination of the tradeoffs we are asked to make between security and freedom. This is a different kind of war from any we've known. There are no geographic boundaries being attacked or defended, no armed conflict on a clearly marked battlefield. How will we know when the war is over and victory can be declared? We should be careful what rights we give up to fight it this war. We might never get them back.
And we must listen closely to the muddle we get from Washington. Last week, the administration hinted that the war on terror might actually be over – hey, we killed Osama, you know, and al-Qaida is practically destroyed. But the Obama administration is still pursuing anti-terrorist strategies even more zealously that the Bush administration and in ways that seem even more dismissive of our civil liberties. It was Benjamin Franklin who said that people who trade liberty for security deserve neither. These are times in which we should not forget that.