It was easy at first to shrug off shoe-bomber Richard Reid as a goofball. He looks like one, to begin with, and the notion that he couldn't light the fuse in his shoe because his hands or feet were too sweaty smacks of a "Get Smart" outtake. But terrorists don't have to have the panache of Carlos the Jackal to be deadly and they don't have to succeed as grandly as Mohammed Atta to be taken seriously.
If there is a lesson in the curious case of Richard Reid it may be, as William Saletan famously wrote in September 2001, that terrorism works precisely because it comes from such unlikely sources and in such unimaginable ways. Men with tiny box-cutters one day, a goofball with black high-tops the next. Some plots succeed, others, by the simple grace of fate, do not.
If Reid weren't so nervous at his H-Hour -- if his matches were a bit sturdier and his fuse a bit more dry -- we'd all be talking about a crime along the lines of the Oklahoma City bombing. And the next attempted terror attack, however simple or complicated it turns out to be, may be directed by someone who has his act a bit more down pat than Reid did on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001.
This is a tough lesson to absorb because it is somewhat counterintuitive to think that so much destruction can follow such simplicity and such an utter lack of sinister appearance. And it's a tough new anti-terror key to plug into a legal system that for hundreds of years has punished people mostly for what they do, not for what they might have done or might do in the future. But Reid's sentencing Thursday and the way it unfolded suggests that important players in America's legal system are, indeed, beginning to understand that from small things very bad things one day can come.
U.S. District Judge William Young threw the book at Reid -- gave him the maximum of life in prison without the possibility of early release -- despite the fact that Reid's deadly plot to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight failed miserably. In doing so, Judge Young articulated the difference between the type of common criminal the system has dealt with since before the Declaration of Independence and the new hybrid breed of terror-criminal who commit crimes in the name of politics and religion.
The judge clearly got the message that even failed terrorist attacks like the one Reid orchestrated must be dealt with severely in this new age of terror threats. There is simply no room in the legal war on terror to cut admitted terrorists a single solitary break in sentencing.
And what made the judge see the light? In part it was Reid himself, who was unrepentant and remorseless before, during, and after his sentencing. When he pleaded guilty a few months ago, Reid defiantly declared his allegiance to terrorists. And before Judge Young sentenced him Thursday Reid again slammed America. Even after the sentence was announced, Reid was so angry and bitter at the judge and the system that he literally had to be shoved out of the courtroom by federal marshals.
So why in the world would the judge have thus been inclined to give Reid a break and sentence him toward the "minimum" end of the applicable federal sentencing guidelines? Wouldn't you have done precisely what the judge did? I would have.
But prosecutors helped pushed the judge toward a maximum sentence by busting a brilliant tactical move. They showed Judge Young before sentencing a "pre-creation" of the damage Reid's shoe-bomb might have created inside that lucky airplane. The test blast, done four years ago, showed a plane literally being blown apart by an explosive device that was similar but not identical to the one Reid proposed to use. Until he viewed the video, Judge Young might have marked Reid as a terror buffoon, a KAOS-like villain with a cockamamie notion that he could take down a huge plane with a tiny little device.
After the video, however, even if it wasn't precisely accurate as to the effects of a shoe bomb blast, Judge Young had to know that Reid came a sweaty palm or two away from killing scores of people on that plane in a horrifying blast. Making the judge see with his own eyes what a shoe bomb actually could do was a masterful stroke by the feds. You combine it with Reid's intransigence and the utter lack of a credible legal defense for Reid's conduct and you get what Reid got.
Which is a sentence that almost certainly dooms Reid to spend the rest of his natural life at the "Supermax" federal prison near Florence, Colorado. There, he may be able, in his hour or so a day out of his cell, to see fellow inmates Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Ramzi Youssef, the man who tried 10 years ago to take down the World Trade Center. See them, perhaps, but certainly not compare notes with them because Reid, like Youssef, will likely continue to be subject to Special Administrative Measures that preclude almost all contact with anyone other than their jailors. Unless he dies an early death in his cell, in other words, or the war on terror ends prematurely, we probably have heard the last of Richard Reid.
People laughed at Youssef in 1993 when he boasted that his buddies would take down the Twin Towers. And they laughed at Ahmed Ressam in 1999 after he was captured just before the millennium celebration trying to import explosives into the country in the trunk of his car. They laughed at Reid too, when they heard how his shoe bomb plot had been foiled. No one ought to be laughing anymore.
Even when the face of terror is a goofy one, and even when terrorism fails through the negligence of terrorists, there is nothing funny about the desperate hatred and fanatical single-mindedness that is being directed at America these days. The Reid sentence shows the system is responding and adapting to that hate. The question is whether the lesson comes too late.
By Andrew Cohen