This past Friday evening, a Somali-born, would-be terrorist failed to detonate a car-bomb at a tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. He failed primarily because his accomplices actually worked for the FBI.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud was the target of a sting operation that began in earnest this past summer. The FBI had been surveilling Mohamud for almost a year, ever since they had intercepted e-mails he had exchanged with a known terrorist recruiter. Knowing of Mohamud's jihadist desires, the FBI made contact and watched (and occasionally assisted) as he planned his post-Thanksgiving attack. Agents helped him plant the car bomb (in reality a fake device) and arrested him shortly after the bomb was set to go off.
Obviously, law enforcement officials must keep a close eye on suspicious characters--especially those who go so far as to express interest in receiving training in terrorist techniques. Furthermore, the FBI claims Mohamud initiated all the major steps in the attack. According to the article in today's paper, agents gave Mohamud numerous opportunities to back out, encouraging him, for example, to wage his holy war through prayer or reminding him that there would be numerous children present at the site of his attack (to which Mohamud allegedly claimed his indifference). Still, this story is troubling.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states, in essence, that an observer, simply by observing an action, affects the action being observed. If mere observation alters an action, then how much greater is the effect when the the observer gets involved? Certainly, Mohamud comes across as a bad dude. But if the FBI agents hadn't come along, how far would he have gone? He might have pursued his plot anyway. Alternatively, he might have become just another grumbling dissident, muttering imprecations under his breath while others stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. We more than understand the need to err on the side of caution, but we wonder if the FBI could have accomplished the same results simply by observing Mohamud and stepping in to arrest him (and any actual accomplices) before they could launch their attack.
What if someone comes up to you and says, "I'd really like to kill John Smith"?
"Well, why don't you?"
"Because I don't have a knife."
"Oh, well, I have a knife. Here."
Then, as your interlocutor heads over to John Smith and prepares to stab him, you, undercover cop that you are, whip out your gun and arrest him.
Have you prevented a murder? Quite likely. But if you hadn't given the potential killer the murder weapon, who's to say that the idle speculation would not have remained just that? Uncertainty is a tricky thing.
(Image from Sigma Xi)