Politics & Policy

In Garland, We Got Lucky

The crime scene in Garland Sunday night.
How much more obvious does a terrorist need to be?

Of course he was a convict.

Elton Simpson was the first figure identified in the latest eruption from the Religion of Peace™ — an attempted massacre at an exhibition of anti-Islamist cartoons in suburban Garland, Texas, which ended in the shooting of Simpson and his coconspirator, because Texas is where terrorists go to get out-gunned at an art show. Simpson and his pal are as dead as a tuna casserole — in Texas, we shoot back.

We got lucky when luck wasn’t what we needed.

Simpson was, like the overwhelming majority of murderers and most of those who commit serious violent crimes, already known to the authorities. He had been investigated by the FBI on the suspicion that he was attempting to travel to Somalia to engage in jihad. He was convicted of lying to the FBI in that episode, and sentenced to . . . probation. The average sentence for a tax-related crime in these United States is 31 months in a federal penitentiary, but for attempting to join up with a gang of savages who are merrily beheading, torturing, enslaving, and raping their way around the world? Probation, and damned little subsequent oversight, apparently.

EDITORIAL: Terror in Texas, and its Aftermath

The federal government will always tell you what it really cares about, if you are paying attention. Trim a bureaucrat’s paycheck by 1 percent and you’ll see mighty Leviathan roused from his dreaming slumber.

There is one and only one reason that an aspiring al-Qaeda bomber or ISIS beheader such as Elton Simpson should be walking the streets: so that the FBI can follow him.

Set aside the question of jihadist terrorism for the moment. In the case of plain-old murder, the overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by people with prior felony charges. Consider New York City, which under the new Sandinista regime of Bill de Blasio is receding into the sort of bloody anarchy associated with the mayoralty of David Dinkins, whose unique combination of fecklessness and laziness was the subject of a recent encomium from Hillary Rodham Clinton — he made “an indelible impact on New York,” she said, which is one way to describe the enormous stack of New Yorkers’ corpses, 2,245 of them in a single year, that piled up on his watch. There’s precious little reason for the murders New York has. Murder is not, generally speaking, an entry-level offense. In a New York Times study of New York murder cases, some 90 percent of the killers had prior criminal records. The same is broadly true of other large U.S. cities, both high-crime cities and low-crime cities. We know who the violent offenders are, and yet we do . . . nothing.

The explanation here is fairly simple: laziness. It is very difficult to enforce the law on outlaws, but very easy to enforce the law on law-abiding citizens. As my colleague Charles C. W. Cooke reports, those who are flying legally with guns through New York and New Jersey airports are routinely arrested, even though they have committed no crime. Make a mistake on the paperwork when you are buying a gun legally — when you are trying to comply with the law — and you might very well find yourself in handcuffs.

RELATED: Islam and Free Speech: Missing the Point in Garland

But in murder-happy Chicago, police seize a great many illegal guns while authorities prosecute practically nobody for the crime of possessing illegal guns. The ratio of criminals put away for illegal guns to illegal guns seized is minuscule, and Chicago refers fewer federal gun violations for prosecution than any other city. (Los Angeles has similar numbers; the local prosecutors’ line — that this is to keep the cases in state courts where stiffer penalties can be handed down — is unsubstantiated to say the least, given the actual rate of prosecution.) But get caught with a legally owned handgun five feet past where your permit allows and you will end up sitting beside some former Illinois governor in a prison cell.

If enforcing the law on jackass teen-age gangsters in Chicago is difficult, it is much more difficult to enforce the law on an aspiring international jihadist. But — and it is a crime that this needs to be written — that is exactly where we should be focusing our efforts.

RELATED: Fight Speech with Speech, Guns with Guns

There is one and only one reason that an aspiring al-Qaeda bomber or ISIS beheader such as Elton Simpson should be walking the streets of these United States a free man: so that the FBI can follow him. We have aggressive domestic surveillance on a dozen different fronts — from the IRS to the SEC to the TSA, to say nothing of whatever it is that the spooks are really up to — but nobody could be bothered to keep an eye on a fellow known to federal authorities to be looking for a plum gig with Bin Laden, Inc. For Pete’s sake, the guy seems to have been on Twitter talking up “#texasattack” before the . . . Texas attack. Where was the FBI? No doubt still on the hunt for those angry Christian right-wing militia extremists who keep not attacking anything other than unlucky squirrels in rural Idaho.

This is some weak stuff, feds.

The only law-enforcement officials doing their jobs in this mess were the Garland locals, who exhibited courage and marksmanship.

Where was the FBI? No doubt still on the hunt for those angry Christian right-wing militia extremists who keep not attacking anything.

Doing probation and parole the right way is hard work, but it is essential work. Incarceration only gets us so far — as a matter of practical reality, we are not going to lock up every violent offender forever, nor should we. There is no reliable way of knowing which offenders are likely to commit other crimes, but there are categories of offenders that deserve higher levels of surveillance and management: those who offend against children, particularly sex offenders of the sort whose crimes often are habitual; those who are involved in gangs or organized crime; those who have committed crimes that are particularly dramatic or outrageous, such as those involving torture; and — right at the top of the list — those involved in terrorism, even if only tangentially.

We got lucky in Garland, but we needn’t — mustn’t — rely on luck. (As the IRA told Margaret Thatcher after its failed attempt to assassinate her: “We only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”) We have professionals for this sort of thing. Yes, it is tons of work to keep an eye on sundry peripatetic villains, and yes, in many cases that laborious effort will produce nothing that is going to earn any fed or local cop a plaque on his wall or a commendation. But we give these police agencies princely budgets and resplendently compensated managers, along with remarkable investigatory powers and other generous resources, to do that job.

So do the damned job.

Federal authorities weren’t doing their job on 9/11. They weren’t doing their job before the attack in Garland, either. No, nobody can stop every crime or detect every criminal, much less every jihadist. But this one had a great big flashing neon sign over his head reading “terrorist.”

If nobody saw, nobody was looking.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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