Is One Kind of Terrorist More Dangerous Than Another?

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of US citizens against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini, Jr. of the FBI said yesterday. He was struggling to explain why, despite 88-year-old James Von Brunn's website full of hate speech, his criminal record, and numerous other warning signs, the FBI wasn't actively investigating him when he mowed down a security guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

But consider the case of Syed Haris Ahmed, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech student who was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists on Wednesday. His crime bears a lot of resemblance to the stuff that Von Brunn had been getting away with for years: He wrote emails and chatted online about engaging in violence. In his case, it was jihad. (For the record, evidence against Ahmed also included amateurish "casing videos" of Washington landmarks.)

US Attorney David Nahmias openly admitted that Ahmed’s case did not involve an imminent threat or act of violence. “We will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode,” he explained. “The fuse that leads to an explosion of violence may be long, but once it is lit...we will prosecute them to snuff that fuse out." Ahmed is now facing 15 years in prison. He's already spent the last three in solitary confinement at Atlanta's US Penitentiary.

It makes you wonder if law enforcement applies a different standard to different kinds of terrorists. And if they think some terrorists' civil liberties are more sacred than others'. One thing is certain: They shouldn't, because if we've learned anything in the past few weeks from James Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, it's that old white men can do a lot more damage than young Muslim ones.