Sunday, March 2, 2008

What Happens in Vegas...

Anyone remember Jeffrey MacDonald, the so-called "Fatal Vision" killer? He's the Army doctor who was convicted of beating and stabbing to death his wife and two young daughters in North Carolina back in 1970. Ever since, he has claimed that the real murderers were a group of hippies—remember, this was 1970—who were evidently carrying out some East Coast version of the Manson Family's mayhem. Before being pummeled into unconsciousness, or so he insists, MacDonald heard a woman chant, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs."

Once I read that, I was pretty sure that MacDonald, whose wounds were regarded by investigators as self-inflicted, had probably committed the crime. As a doctor, of course, he would have known exactly how to injure himself without risking permanent damage. But that wasn't what cinched the case for me. Instead, it was that chant: "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs". That wasn't the sort of thing that any self-respecting hippie would have said, especially by the beginning of the 70s. But it was the sort of thing that a 26-year old Green Beret surgeon, aware of the counterculture only through television, might imagine would issue from the larynx of some Squeaky Fromme wannabe.

I had the same feeling again back in 2001 during the now all-but-forgotten anthrax scare. At the time, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the discovery of poisonous spores in a few letters addressed to media outlets and leading politicians sent the country into a frenzy. It seemed, for just that moment, that the terrorist assault on Americans would be unending, and that we would never again feel safe. Nearly everyone was certain that this latest episode, which killed several people, represented the second wave of bin Laden's offensive. It simply had to be the work of al Qaeda.

But I had my doubts as soon as I read about the notes that had accompanied two of the letters. Here was one of them:


Like the words that Jeffrey MacDonald claimed to have heard three decades earlier, it all just seemed too pat. First, it made no sense that the perpetrators of 9/11 would warn their next set of victims how to avoid succumbing to the attack. But more than that, the notes simply read like something an American, raised on old news footage, would attribute to Muslim terrorists. I mean, come on: Death to America; Death to Israel; Allah is Great. Whoever wrote these notes wasn't even trying. They sound like they were penned by some villain from "The A-Team". I pity the fool who says, "Death to America!"

And of course, it turned out that, in all likelihood, the anthrax incident was launched by a domestic terrorist. Indeed, evidence was uncovered suggesting that the poison came, either directly or indirectly, from a U.S. military weapons lab in Maryland. Some guy who worked there became the prime suspect, but he loudly proclaimed his innocence and the government never succeeded in proving otherwise.

Then the whole thing just sort of went away. A terror attack was launched by Americans on Americans, several people died, and within about six months, nobody cared anymore. The event simply didn't fit the media's paradigm of terrorism, and was, in any event, dwarfed by the enormity of what had happened on September 11. Muslims were the bad guys, dammit, and we were about to go attack them in Afghanistan which would fulfill our debt to the World Trade Center victims, not to mention validate the wishes of three or four country music singers who promised that "we'll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way".

It is not, however, the American way to send deadly spores through the mail, just as it is not the American way to load a rental truck with explosives and detonate it in front of a random government building on the plains of Oklahoma. Terrorists, after all, are dark foreign people who hate America. President Bush told us so. Homegrown killers simply muddle the equation.

Think, for example, of Dick Cheney's "one percent" doctrine, the idea that even if there's only a slight chance of something awful happening, we should act as though the probability were 100%. Thus, we invade countries, like Iraq, that pose no serious threat to the United States because, in the Vice President's fevered and paranoid mind, Saddam might have WMDs that might get into the hands of terrorists who might launch an attack on the American homeland during a full solar eclipse sometime in the late 23rd Century. But if it turns out these terrible attacks can just as easily be loosed by our own citizens, then where does that leave Cheney's argument?

The entire plausibility of the Bush/Cheney, and now McCain, approach to battling terrorism hinges on the distinction between us and them. They want to kill us; we need to stop them. We need to fight them there, so they don't come after us here. Complicate the issue with American survivalists plotting mass murder or angry men with some connection to the U.S. military circulating envelopes of death through the postal system and the Republican narrative breaks down. If the problem extends beyond the evils of Islamofascism, or whatever they're calling it these days, then the solution offered up by Bush and Company is both misleading and inadequate.

So here we are again, this time in Las Vegas, with a man evidently producing ricin in a hotel room, within unknown purposes. He was apparently heavily armed and also had a copy of something referred to as the Anarchist Cookbook, in which the section on ricin was highlighted. The room was rented to someone whose name clearly did not suggest any connection to Islam or the Middle East.

Something was obviously going on, although we don't yet know exactly what it was. The man who signed for the hotel room is currently in the hospital, silenced by a coma. Nevertheless, here's what the website of a local Vegas TV station had to say:

"Police say there is no indication of any link to terrorist activity involving the discovery of the deadly poison ricin that was found in a hotel room near the Las Vegas Strip."

Say what?!?!?

Do Nevada authorities have any idea why this guy was allegedly cooking up ricin and stashing it in baggies? Was he just bored? He presumably, you know, had some purpose in doing what he was doing, and the odds are that it wasn't the sort of goal that is typically smiled upon by law enforcement. From the looks of it, the quantities of the poison involved go well beyond what might be needed to, say, eliminate an ex-lover. So the guy may have had bigger plans. At the very least, aren't the police reports just a bit premature in dismissing a terrorist connection? Or do they simply mean to inform us that no Muslims were involved?

No matter. Unless the man turns out to have an Iranian passport, my guess is that we will hear only a little more about this case before it follows the 2001 anthrax attacks down the memory hole. In the meantime, at McCarran International Airport, just off the strip, the traveling public will tense up at the sight of an Arab family in the terminal while some guy with an anarchist textbook in his carry-on bag will walk by unnoticed and jump into the nearest taxi bound for a city that never sleeps.

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