A New York Times report indicates that “top intelligence officials in the New York Police Department” met Thursday to discuss how to use the Internet to “identify potential ‘deranged’ gunmen before they strike.”
NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated, “The techniques would include cyber-searches of language that mass-casualty shooters have used in e-mails and Internet postings…The goal would be to identify the shooter in cyberspace, engage him there and intervene, possibly using an undercover to get close, and take him into custody or otherwise disrupt his plans.”
To anyone familiar with how the NYPD has targeted potential terrorists, it is clear what Kelly and others are considering is developed entrapment schemes or—as the NYPD would probably call them—”sting operations” for catching individuals, who might be responsible for mass shootings.
NYPD spokesperson Paul J. Browne shared the department plans to send officers to Newtown, the city in Connecticut where a mass shooting killing 26 people took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School one week ago. Twenty of them were children.
Browne also said possible tactics to be used would be to search online “for terms used by active shooters in the past that may be an indicator of future intentions.” This, Kelly noted, would not be all that different from how the NYPD has looked online for “terrorists’ chatter.” The idea would be to find “apolitical or deranged killers before they become active shooters.”
What the NYPD is considering is precrime. They are talking about trying to catch people, who are probably mentally ill, and convicting them of “plotting” a mass shooting before they even shoot people. More significantly, they are acknowledging that agents could be used to nudge these “potential deranged gunmen” into carrying out plans for a shooting probably right up until the moment they put their hand on a weapon and begin their approach toward a school filled with children.
Consider, for example, the case of Jose Pimentel, who faces state terrorism charges for allegedly building a pipe bomb that he planned to explode. The NYPD used informants in a sting operation that eventually led to his arrest on November 18, 2011. The FBI was also involved.
Pimentel, who is twenty-eight years old, moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States. He had apparently seen witches before moving to the US but, after moving, began to see “spirits.” This ended when he converted to Islam in 2004 at a Manhattan mosque. He lived on $2/day allowance from his mother, which was not enough for carfare to the mosque where he wanted to pray. And Pimentel had a blog with a link to material that came from Inspire, the online magazine of al Qaeda.
Pimentel was a mentally unstable person, who converted to Islam. As a New York Times report noted, his neighbors found him to be a “somewhat lethargic figure. He would often sit on a bench for hours with a “blank look” on his face. Talking Points Memo confirmed Pimentel smoked marijuana with the NYPD informant. Pimentel also tried to circumcise himself. Prior to the sting operation, he had a felony conviction for purchasing a computer with stolen credit card information.
As Michael Greenberg of the New York Review of Books wrote, the NYPD approached the FBI to take the case in order to ensure it would go to federal court. The FBI concluded “Pimental was ‘not a serious terror threat’ and that, according to an FBI official who works with the NYPD and asked to remain unnamed, he lacked ‘the predisposition or the ability to do anything on his own.’ The New York Times reported that federal investigators ‘were concerned that the case raised some entrapment questions.’ Some agents ‘wondered whether Mr. Pimentel had even the small amount of money or technical know-how necessary to produce a pipe bomb on his own, had he not received help from the informer.'”
The public can expect to see the same issues arising if the NYPD takes the same approach to stopping “potential deranged gunmen.” There are sure to be a number of cases where people are asking whether the person had a “predisposition or the ability to do anything on his own.” This will be especially true if NYPD informants help the target obtain weapons.
Then, there’s the issue of who the NYPD will be targeting. If they intend to collect “intelligence” through reconnaissance missions to sites where mass shootings have taken place, they will then be formulating a template for detecting a shooter. It is sure to be based on interests, like what music they listened to or what movies they watched. Or, it will be based on how isolated those gunmen were; if they were loner-types, then agents will take note. On the internet, they will look at speech that should be protected and project interpretations to determine whether that person could pose a danger, even if the person has made no explicit threats of violence. Perhaps, informants will even look for odd behaviors and then begin operations based on the fact that prior shooters acted this way.
It is not altogether surprising that this is how the NYPD would seek to be on the “cutting edge” of law enforcement. Over the last decade it has transformed into an espionage agency, which carries out clandestine operations under the guise of combatting terrorism. In 2011, the Associated Press reported extensively on documents showing the pervasive and intrusive surveillance being carried out by the NYPD to “map ” Muslim communities. Surveillance powers expanded since the September 11th attacks have given the NYPD the capacity to arbitrarily select any individuals they want for sting operations, especially those that are vulnerable and may have shown some interest in propaganda written by Muslim extremists. This is all a result of a strand of security culture that has flourished among proponents of the national security state for the past ten years.
Unfortunately, one has to wonder if further expansion of the police state to include entrapment schemes designed to “prevent” mass shootings will be met with much outrage from Americans if they find out a person accused of planning a shooting was caught with these tactics. The population is likely to react how they have reacted to the use of entrapment schemes on Muslims by simply accepting that these individuals targeted were probably dangerous people and it may look sketchy but something had to be done. Police have to be vigilant and they can take no chances.
Both terrorist attacks and mass shootings are media events that induce sharp emotional reactions in Americans. Especially when children are killed, they leave people wishing something, anything, had been done to catch those responsible before they carried out the act of violence.
The problem is targeting “potential” criminals does not ensure horrific acts no longer occur. Without addressing the root causes that drive people to commit acts of violence, whether they be mass shootings or acts considered terrorism. And, if a police state remedy drives the response to violence, there is likely to be more resources and trust infused in this remedy and less resources and trust put into tightening up background checks, imposing stricter gun regulations and increasing the availability of mental health services. It may make it less likely that work is done to address the poverty or economic despair, which makes it impossible for a family to afford mental heath care or makes it difficult for parents to raise their children because they have to work two or three jobs.
Finally, there is a post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” that went viral immediately after the Newtown shooting. A mother, Liza Long, wrote a gut-wrenching piece about her son, Michael, who suffers from severe mental or emotional problems, has violent fits and has taken medication that apparently has not worked. His mother loves him, but she is afraid of what he might do to her and he wants to get him help but is not sure where her son should go. She was told by a social worker the only way he could get help is if he were charged with a crime and became part of the American correctional system. (Of course, that could have even worse implications especially if he was placed in conditions of solitary confinement.)
Would these be the kind of people the NYPD targeted? How young might they be? Teenagers? Ten year-olds? Younger?
Would there ever be a situation where agents tried to get a family help instead of making it worse by using an informant to convince a person to carry out a crime? Would arrests, as with terrorism, became a metric to show authorities were winning some “war” or “battle”? Would we be putting mentally ill people in small cells that numb their senses, make them feel even more isolated from the world and drive them even more crazy than they already are?
What is being considered by NYPD intelligence officials just seems morally reprehensible (not to mention it is exceedingly dystopian). Moreover, if the police are going to use tactics of pre-crime to catch “terrorists” and “potential deranged gunmen,” what category of “criminals” will we try to catch next before they commit a crime?