Like the Mounties, they finally got their men.
And all it took was three years, three trials and millions of taxpayer dollars. At that price, you'd like to feel a certain satisfaction from last week's guilty verdict against five men from inner-city Miami who stood accused of conspiring with al-Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks in this country. You'd like to feel you'd seen justice done.
Instead, you are left with the nagging suspicion that all you've seen is justice miscarried.
Prosecutors say the seven men arrested at a Liberty City warehouse in June 2006 were a homegrown terror cell conspiring with an FBI informant they thought was an al-Qaeda representative to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and other sites. The feds made their case with secret recordings, testimony that the men swore an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda and photos of possible terror targets taken by the defendants.
But the defense says the seven are just the hapless members of a would-be religious sect who thought they had found a patsy who'd give them money as long as he believed they were planning a terrorist strike. All they wanted, they say, was cash – to finance their sect.
Indeed, according to testimony, even the pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda only came after the informant dangled a promise of $50,000. The men thought they were scamming him in the name of the Lord.
And here we should note that when authorities raided the group's warehouse headquarters, they found . . . nothing. No guns, no bombs, no maps, no plans, no manifestos, not a thing that would suggest terrorists preparing to strike. Only Bibles, Korans, law books, Samurai swords.
Two juries were unconvinced by the prosecution's argument. They deadlocked, the first jury acquitting one of the original seven defendants. You'd think the feds would've gotten the hint, but they went back a third time and that proved to be the charm.
Still, even last week's conviction came with a caveat: another of the six remaining defendants was found not guilty. All of which amounts to a less than ringing endorsement of the government's case.
This uncertainty could easily have been avoided. The government itself says – and the evidence certainly indicates – these guys were nowhere near ready to do anything and were being closely watched, besides. So what would have been the harm in playing it out, waiting to see if they actually made a move – bought guns or bomb-making materials, let's say – before swooping in?
Because the government moved precipitously, we are left this irresolute resolution – and five men are facing sentences of up to 70 years behind bars for talking terrorism at the government's behest. Remember the Bush administration telling us this "cell" (without even a gun to its name, mind you) was as ''dangerous'' as al Qaeda? I doubt even the prosecutors still believe that, if they ever did.
These men may be guilty of something, but terrorism? Not likely. And a 70-year sentence would be absurd on its face.
But it's a real possibility here in the Great Panic. That strikes me as a fit name for the era that began Sept. 11, 2001 and that can't end soon enough, an era in which some of us see terror behind every Bush and outhouse, an era in which we were told, encouraged and reminded to fear, because fear makes people compliant and unquestioning.
Encouraged to fear
Most of all, it is the era in which we were told we had to cut corners, compromise our laws, our fundamental liberties and our dearest principles, because these were luxuries we could ill afford in a frightening time when "they'" are out to get us.
But seeing these hapless "terrorists" convicted on such scandalously anorexic evidence suggests to me that "they" need not bother. We've done a pretty good job of getting ourselves.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.