What you need to know about Michael C. Finton is that he parked a van in front of a federal building in Springfield, Ill., believing it was loaded with explosives. He then twice made cell phone calls that he thought would detonate the bombs.
Finton never made contact with any real al-Qaida operatives, only FBI agents pretending to be such. The creepiest part is that Finton was a fry cook from Decatur whom neighbors called a “nice young man” — and he seemed to be perfectly willing to kill hundreds in a flamboyant act of terrorism.
The recent arrests of several suspected domestic terrorists remind us that the threat is not entirely the product of a hostile outside world. It brews within the twisted minds of seemingly ordinary Americans. We learned that in 1986, when native son Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, extinguishing 168 lives.
This recognition somewhat dampens the good news on the terrorism front — that al-Qaida, the organization responsible for the Sept. 11 atrocities, is much diminished. Many of its leaders have been killed, and its wanton slaughtering of innocent Muslims have hurt recruiting efforts in the Islamic world.
Even the troubling case of Najibullah Zazi — an airport shuttle driver in Denver — can’t yet be pinned on orders from outside. Prosecutors say that Zazi admitted to attending an al-Qaida explosives training camp in Pakistan, but his lawyer disagrees with their account.
Zazi did buy bomb-making chemicals in Colorado and had evidently mixed them in a hotel suite. But law enforcement officials have found no co-conspirators, nor do they know whether, when Zazi drove to New York, he had chosen a target.
What is known about Zazi is that he is a legal immigrant from Afghanistan. Before moving to Colorado, he had worked as a doughnut vendor in Lower Manhattan. Customers remembered his smile and the “God Bless America” sticker on his cart. Upon being named a terrorism suspect, Zazi reportedly said, “This is one of the best countries in the world.”
The stories of these terrorists — real or merely accused — seem to share some frightening common elements. The suspects tend to be unremarkable and often likable.
Acquaintances recalled the young McVeigh as shy, quiet and churchgoing. Mohamed Atta, the lead terrorist who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, was said to be a timid youth. Finton’s co-workers found him cheerful and polite. Most had difficult childhoods, but so have many people.
There may have been a psychosexual dimension to their craziness. None of these men had love lives. Atta sat on his mother’s lap until he left for college. He refused to shake hands with a woman who judged his thesis at a German university. Though Finton did prison time for violent robbery, he railed against our permissive society.
These real or play terrorists all stapled themselves to a bigger movement, perhaps to give their inner chaos some respectability. McVeigh trafficked in right-wing conspiracies. Finton, Zazi and Sept. 11 terrorists found ballast in radical Islam.
But under their anonymity bubbled a grandiose interest in making history. Finton told federal agents that his attempted mass murder would be a “historic occasion.” Embarking on his flight to infamy, Atta had left his will in luggage at Boston’s Logan Airport, leaving no doubt as to his role in the horrors that followed.
The homegrown dangers remain the most unsettling. Long after the last al-Qaida leader is picked off by a drone, we will still have people harboring a stew of anger within and showing an agreeable exterior without. That’s the scariest part.
©2009 The Providence Journal Co.