When the terrorists look like grandpa

By Tom Baxter

In the courtroom sketches, they look like they could be aging character actors, grinding out one last movie about a couple of loveable old curmudgeons who get themselves into a mess of trouble, before everything gets straightened out in the hilarious climax.

Except this movie isn’t funny at all.

Frederick Thomas, 73, and Dan Roberts, 68, were sentenced to five years in prison last week in a federal court in Gainesville for conspiring to obtain an illegal explosive device and a silencer. In recordings made by an FBI informant, they had talked of blowing up federal office buildings in downtown Atlanta and stalking and killing federal officials when the time came to do so.

Their attorneys argued they were simply “old soldiers,” blowing off steam about the government and egged on toward violence by the informant. In the tapes, Thomas seems almost grandfatherly in his condemnation of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“He killed kids. We don’t want to do anything to harm children,” Thomas said in the recording.

This is the face of terrorism that isn’t so easy to talk about, the one that isn’t so foreign or so far away. Or even so recent. In the Alabama of my youth, there were a lot of old guys, furious over desegregation and the advancing reach of the federal government, who talked about wreaking violence in a manner much like that of Thomas and Roberts, who planned with the informant and two buddies, now awaiting trial on related charges, to roll into action when the country collapsed.

Only a few of them actually meant it, which is sort of the point. Terrorism is a slippery slope. On the same recordings in which Thomas expressed his squeamishness over killing children, he talks about shooting federal judges and learning the habits of individual IRS and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials “so we can shoot the guy or gal.” The two men Thomas and Roberts were arrested with last year, Ray Adams, 65, and Samuel Crump, 68, are charged with attempting to produce the deadly biotoxin ricin.

Left to their own devices, would they ever have unleashed these weapons of mass destruction? In the individual case of these defendants, it’s impossible to know, but the terrifying reality is that enough destructive schemes plotted over enough time will eventually generate some which go too far. The defendants seem more like wannabe terrorists than the real thing, it’s true. But take away the orange hair and that creep out in Colorado only looks like a wannabe mass killer.

There are lingering questions about what limits should be placed on sting operations of the kind which ensnared these four old men. But if those questions are valid in this case, they’re also valid in cases where the defendants don’t look anything like your kindly old grandpa. The standards that are set in the war on terrorism have to be applied equally, if there are to be any standards at all.

This isn’t because of some abstract conception of justice, but because the potential havoc that can be wreaked by domestic terrorists has been chronically underestimated by comparison with the harm that could be done by terrorists of the global, more easily differentiated variety. These old guys may only have been playing at being a right-wing militia, but they were trying to get their hands on some very dangerous toys.

And if the mullahs who incite their disciples to violence against the United States are to be held accountable, what about those who helped ratchet up Thomas and Roberts’ anger to the point that they were talking about attacking the country they both faithfully served in the military?

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Story was appropriately respectful toward the two veterans in the sentencing hearing last week, speaking of the “good and positive” aspects of their lives. But he was also correct in imposing the maximum sentence he could hand out under the plea bargain they agreed to.

It’s painful to think about sending old and, in the case of Thomas, sick men off to prison for what could be the rest of their lives. But that might be the best lens through which to think about terrorism as a whole. When the terrorists are very different from us and their bases are far away, it may seem that there are easy choices for how they should be dealt with. But closer up, there never are.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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