The New York City Pipe Bomber

By  A. G. Moore  November 28

Last week Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly of New York held a joint news conference to announce that they had placed a suspected terrorist, Jose  Pimentel, under arrest.  Mr. Pimentel, they reported, was inspired by his al-Qaeda sympathies to plan a pipe bombing campaign in New York.

We should all ask ourselves, is New York safer with Mr. Pimentel behind bars?
The question arises as one looks more carefully at the particulars of this case.

For one thing, the federal government declined to assist in the apprehension of Mr. Pimentel or to be involved in his prosecution. They were concerned about the active participation of a police informant in the planning and execution of Mr. Pimentel’s bomb-making activities–as far as these activities went.

News reports published after the initial news conference stated that Mr. Pimentel had virtually no terrorist contacts. He apparently attempted to open a line of communication with Anwar al-Awlaki but never received a response or encouragement. These news reports also stated that Mr. Pimentel was bereft of financial resources.  Apparently, some of the materials for the pipe bomb were purchased with money supplied by the police undercover operative.

The deficits of the accused terrorist extended beyond his financial inadequacy. Mr. Pimentel apparently did not possess the most rudimentary of mechanical skills. After acquiring drill bits, he had difficulty in actually making holes in the pipe that was a critical part of his bomb. He needed help in accomplishing this basic task.

It seems that before the police undercover operative contacted Mr. Pimentel, he was a man who was given to talk. He disapproved of the U.S. actions in the Middle East and approved of al-Qaeda. His frequently expressed sentiments were passed on to the New York City Police Department, which decided to look more closely at this discontented individual. Although the police had Mr. Pimentel under surveillance for more than two years, his active bomb making did not begin until this year.

Mr. Pimentel had an uneven personal life. He had been thrown out of his mother’s house and was living with an uncle. At least one neighbor reported that he used to sit outside “like a zombie”.

There is no doubt that Mr. Pimentel was unhappy and that he was angry. At least one focus of his anger was the U.S. government and he found a lexicon for expressing that anger on pro al-Qaeda websites.

There is also no doubt that Mr. Pimentel was an ineffective man.  He did not have a job, a family, his own apartment or money. He did not have a working plan to bomb anything until the police became involved in his angry fantasies.

The facts of this case will come to light over the next months and years. I would be shocked if Mr. Pimentel is found to be free of mental illness.  From early reports it seems he was less an agent of terrorism and more an empty vessel waiting for direction.

Without police manipulation, it is likely Mr. Pimentel would never have done anything more than rant annoyingly to all who were in earshot. However, as empty as Mr. Pimentel’s rants may have been, I am not suggesting that the police should have done nothing. It is possible that Mr. Pimentel was one of those loose cannons who have the potential to go off and harm people when sufficiently provoked. Certainly his conversations indicated that this was his inclination.

Intervention was possibly appropriate.  A social service agency could have been contacted. An attempt might have been made to have Mr. Pimintel voluntarily receive medical care, vocational training, supervised  living quarters. I know that a valid argument exists – even in my own mind – that none of these interventions is constitutionally justified, that each would be a violation of  Mr. Pimentel as a free citizen. But I ask, is what the police actually did not a far more egregious violation of Mr. Pimentel’s rights?

Is not planting an agent in his life, wiretapping his phone, tracking his every movement and then actually prompting him toward a criminal act not a gross violation of Mr. Pimentel’s liberties?

At least, if instead of a police action, Mr. Pimentel’s troubling behavior had become the object of a social service agency, Mr. Pimentel might be not be in jail today. True, the taxpayer would have been out some money for all those support services, but how much, I wonder did the last two years of police scrutiny cost? And what is his incarceration costing now? And how much will his trial cost?

In 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, my daughter was in New York City, visiting friends on Avenue A, South of Canal Street.  Her boyfriend was somewhere in the city and her good friend was one of the few who made it out of the towers before they collapsed.  I, like everyone, but most especially like every New Yorker, was angry and defensive.  I tried to think of how to fight back. The attack was supposed to devastate the economy, so I bought stock in an airline. People were supposed to be afraid to fly. So I bought a pair of airplane tickets and booked a hotel room.

Terrorism is not something I take lightly. But neither do I relinquish my freedoms easily.

Am I  safer with Mr. Pimintel behind bars? I don’t think so. I do not feel I have been protected by a police department which targeted an unstable individual and fueled his angry fantasy. Certainly, the police should have taken note of Mr. Pimintel if he indeed threatened violence. But they should in no way have assisted him in the ways of realizing his fantasy.  Once that assistance took place, once Mr. Pimintel’s free agency was compromised, so was his guilt.

In the case of Jose Pimentel, the New York City Police Department exceeded their considerable authority to fight terror. That does not make me feel safe. That actually makes me afraid.

Readings:

Jose Pimentel Smoked Marijuana with NYPD Informant, Tried to Circumcise Himself:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/jose-pimentel-terror-susp_n_1107677.html

Another Take on Terror, by Leonard Levitt:http://nypdconfidential.com/columns/2011/110620.html

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