Mahmud Faruq Brent, a 30-year-old Washington, D.C., taxi driver, is about to spend the next 15 years behind bars for "conspiring to support a terrorist organization." No one, not even prosecutors, believes that the Ohio-born Brent planned to attack the United States. Brent was convicted of supporting Lakshar-e-Taiba, an Islamist group in Pakistan, and of attending one of its training camps.
"This defendant took action, and he offered himself to a terrorist organization," explains the prosecutor. But all the "action" took place in the would-be jihadi's brain. There was no terrorist act. There was no crime.
Based in Pakistan, Lakshar-e-Taiba has attacked India, which it seeks to drive out of Kashmir. It has also carried out terrorist acts in Pakistan as part of its campaign to oust the military junta of General Pervez Musharraf. It's easy to see why Musharraf is afraid of the group. One could understand why the United States, as Musharraf's ally, might honor Pakistan's request to extradite one of its members. But Lakshar-e-Taiba has never attacked a target in the United States, the West—anywhere outside the Asian subcontinent. Why are American taxpayers footing the bill to lock this man up for 15 years?
Abdulrahman Farhane, a Brooklyn bookstore owner accused with Mahmud Brent of supporting the Pakistani group Lakshar-e-Taiba, received 13 years in federal prison. Two others charged in the case are awaiting sentencing.
As the government breaks up one alleged "plot" after another (Columbine-type massacre narrowly avoided as high school kid nabbed with "hit list" of fellow students! Crazy Muslim radicals caught with camera full of digital photos of tourist attractions!) it's easy to see that anyone—yes, even you—can get swept up by hysterical grand inquisitors wielding dubious legal logic as naive journalists dutifully report the latest victory against imminent danger.
"The government is arresting individuals on terrorism charges based on what individuals have said or thought—not on actual, concrete plans," editorialized the Daytona Beach News-Journal about Hamid Hayat, one of countless Muslims nabbed after 9/11 for "providing material support or resources to terrorists." The feds "only proved that he did things that sometimes precede acts of terrorism. It was pre-emptive justice, but was also speculative justice."
Most people have indulged in theoretical discussions about how to rob a bank or even how to get away with murder. They obviously don't intend to carry out their "plots." Yet any of us could fall victim to the recent tendency to equate crimes of intent to crimes of action.
Jack McClellan, 45, is a self-described pedophile who runs a blog that advocates sex with children. "If you look at things he has posted, he clearly is a pedophile," says Lt. Thomas Sirkel of the Sheriff's Department in Los Angeles, where McClellan lives. As far as we know, however, he has never acted on it. His record is clean.
Local mothers are plotting—er, organizing—"to push lawmakers in Sacramento to legislate Mr. McClellan out of business," reports The New York Times. "Just the idea that this person could get away with what he was doing and no one could press charges has made me angry," Jane Thompson of East Los Angeles told the paper. Of course, what really angers her is that he's getting away with what he's thinking.
I don't blame her. But McClellan hasn't done anything. Do we really want to live in a culture that penalizes violent and impure thoughts?
Thoughtcrime pours big bucks into CBS Television, broadcaster of the take-a-bath-after-viewing program "To Catch a Predator." No one cares about entrapped suckers like the guy "in a SpongeBob SquarePants jacket, armed with a bottle of K-Y Jelly." Like dozens of other would-be pervs, the 21-year-old man thinks he's going to meet a 14-year-old girl for sex, only to find Dateline's Chris Hansen and a passel of cops waiting to arrest him.
Run your neighborhood through your state's Megan's Law database and you'll likely conclude that sex offenders are all over the place. One is too many, but the problem isn't as widespread as we've been led to believe. Many of the registrants are statutory rapists like the 17-year-old Georgia boy doing hard time for consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl.
"Anti-predator stings involving decoys may actually outnumber crimes involving real victims," reports Rolling Stone. "To Catch a Predator" claims there are 50,000 child molesters online. But "a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire estimated that there were fewer than 2,900 arrests for online sexual offenses against minors in a single year. What's more, only 1,152 involved victims who were approached by strangers on the Internet—and more than half this number were actually cops posing as kids."
In other words, most men who fantasize about sex with children don't actually do it. Judeo-Christian tradition rewards those who deny temptation; we throw them in jail. Perverted Justice, the group that trolls chat rooms to set up stings for "To Catch a Predator," has a fitting name.
Ari Fleischer warned us to watch what we say. Now we'd better watch what we think.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.