I was conducting a class recently that included discussions on the civilian impact of terrorism and the terrorist mindset. Invariably these sessions always threaten to devolve into wholesale natterings of opinion, interlaced with educated guesses and sprinkled with rigid beliefs that run along ethnic, cultural, and/or political lines. In other words, discourse becomes mired in bulls*#t. I was asked in this class, as I am in so many of my other classes, whether terrorists are actually criminals. There are, as you may imagine, as many takes on the subject as there are rumps filling those uncomfortable, wooden seats that pass for chairs in so many places of academia.
Are terrorists criminals? Would you, as a writer of mysteries and crime, use a Middle-Eastern Islamic Fanatic as your main antagonist... or did the words I just use make you cringe? Would you rather, if you did include a terrorist in your writings, make him/her from some former Eastern European or little known Asian country so as to avoid this whole Middle-East thing altogether? I know a lot of people who would. Yet, it is from this mysterious part of the world that one of the most horrific criminal acts ever perpetrated on the American people came from. Soon, some of the masterminds of some of the most heinous acts of mass murder, torture, kidnapping, and just plain 'ol murder will be brought to trial. Many people are confused as to whether these men should be tried in a military court as "enemy combatants" or in a criminal court as "enemies of the state." Doing one or the other is likely to raise controversey and just as likely to leave some of us unsatisfied. Now hold on, hold on... not all terrorists come from the Middle East, you say. And you're absolutely right. I myself am a terrorism survivor, being employed by the NYPD in the wee hours of 1982 when the FALN bombed police headquarters in NYC. These acts, like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, were committed by homegrown terrorists as American as apple pie.
To understand whether these men are criminals is to understand their mindset; their thinking. Many Middle-Eastern terrorists, if not most of them, are still fighting a war that goes back hundreds of years. Some of them, as well as other terrorists of various ethnic backgrounds and religions around the world, are still fighting the ramifications of political decisions made immediately after the First World War. Many and more are fighting for more recent ideological and political reasons, and plenty are killing just for killing's sake. Whatever the reasons, here's the truth... murder is murder and war is hell. For most terrorists killing, especially mass murder, is a means to an end-- a way to bring attention to their agendas. Like a serial killer that leaves clues or a calling card at the crime scene, he/she wants attention... craves it. They don't want to be caught, usually, but they want at least some notoriety for their action(s). Whew, sorry, I'm writing as if I'm at the podium again. Anyway, criminality and its penalties are imposed by the political system that is currently in power. If a political establishment says it's okay to kill many of one type of people, then in the eyes of the majority of that political systems citizenry, it ceases to be a criminal act (enter an ethnic group in here, Jews, Albanians, Tutsis or Hutus, Gypseys, Nez-Perce, citizens of Darfur, etc). Does that make it any less so in the eyes of another nation or another people? Personally, the idea of putting terrorists through a good 'ol fashioned "perp" walk, booking, and then locking them away in a cell with maybe 30-50 other criminals of various ilk, sounds good to me. Giving terrorists the media attention they crave, then placing them in a federal lock-up just doesn't smack of keen justice to me. A few years at Rikers, or Sing-Sing, might be just the thing to take some of the rhetoric from their sails and remind them that murder is, after all, a crime... and that the taking of innocent lives, regardless of your so-called agenda is still murder.