He’s an intriguing moral bellwether, Nathaniel Heatwole. Heatwole is that nice young college student who tossed his life away by planting bleach, matches, box cutters and fake explosives on planes, resulting in delays and renewed passenger jitters, as law enforcement initiated searches of airplanes throughout the United States. Heatwole declared himself engaged in a mission of “civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public.”
It was an interesting claim, if a familiar one in the annals of crime: It may look like I was joyriding in that little red Corvette, but really I was just testing the security. Think of it as a public service. You passed–now unhand me. Heatwole’s rationale was hacker justice run amok, or worse, a genuinely risky sort of Russian roulette. (What if the wrong person had found those knives and those matches before the FAA did?) His deed certainly bears no resemblance to civil disobedience within the tradition of passive resistance. It was an act of aggressive vigilantism.
According to the New York Times, Heatwole “keeps his brown hair short and parted.” I guess that’s supposed to be a cipher for his being earnest and eager. Or obsessive and orderly. Maybe preppy and presentable? He is also a storm-chaser, it was noted–one of those dashing thrill-seekers who jump into jeeps to speed after tornadoes in full tilt. He’s a ham radio operator too, always at the center of things when disaster strikes. There’s a certain romance in these descriptive details, reiterated by many media outlets as though they legitimized Heatwole’s adventurism, as though this really were a test that federal authorities flunked. How ashamed the big guys ought to be! How brave the little upstart!
In Congress, there was a bipartisan call for leniency for Heatwole, who was judged not a flight risk and allowed to go home on his own recognizance. Someone with a nice neat part in his clean brown hair isn’t terrifying enough, I guess, to be slammed with the full force and fury of the Homeland Security Act. Let me be clear: I am not arguing that a young man with no prior record should automatically be held without bail or do hard time. On the contrary, all things being equal, I would wish the same considered disposition for his doppelgänger, the spirited young Ahmed Heatwole. I do marvel, in other words, that he has been handled with such comparative leniency in an era when others, whose alleged misdemeanors did not result in anything like the havoc and disruption of Heatwole’s crimes, have disappeared into military brigs, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It’s the whimsical polarity of outcome that worries me. And in the continued absence of any Justice Department clarification of the standards being employed in terrorism prosecutions, such disparity remains decipherable only at the level of guess.
What’s also unsettling is that Heatwole has been rendered altogether heroic in so many quarters. Trolling through subways, restaurants, chatrooms and Starbucks, I’ve heard arguments that he is to be commended for “proving a point.”
Everywhere there are theories in praise of lone-wolf obstructionism as a way to hold big government accountable, bizarrely apolitical pronouncements like, “Anyone who’s smart enough to bring the whole bureaucracy grinding to a halt gets my vote.” Watch out, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Heatwole, who ascribes his so-called activism to Quaker teachings, seems to me much more the product of the Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair school of acting out. One can imagine them in high school–not the super bad boys of the trenchcoat mafia but the fanatical good-boy hall monitors to whom foolish teachers entrusted the rule book, and to whom every rule became a toy, a trick or a bludgeon. Smart young men mostly, in the grip of noble resentments of authority as well as less noble little-boy longings to make the biggest splash, the loudest bang, the longest dribble of spit. People without the inclination to be overtly disobedient or rebellious but to whom rules present an irresistible game of manipulation rather than balance, of strategy rather than principle. The gadfly as Virtue Aggrieved.
A friend holds the view that “young people today” (are we aging baby boomers or what?) are wholly shaped by computer gaming, eternally fascinated by the ability to beat the system, any system, doesn’t matter which system. But I worry that there is a deeper cynicism at work, in which nothing matters because nothing is real, in which cheating is rationalized as a kind of free-floating ambition, the necessary corruption of a world in which everyone is a crook. If every exhortation to social order is viewed as hypocritical, then how sweet the “gotcha” moment of the anarchic Mr. Heatwole. Stephen Glass’s life is “great stuff,” according to a college-age friend of mine who is looking forward to Shattered Glass, the movie based on his duping of The New Republic.
Similarly, the film Catch Me If You Can is a quite forgiving take on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr., the teenager who ran away from his broken home to take up careers impersonating–successfully–an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor. Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale is so sympathetic–we love precisely the genial swagger, the very confidence in his conning. He’s harmless! A striver! A survivor against the odds! The narrative of mitigation is absolutely irresistible.
This rhetoric of the romantic outlaw–the courageous cowboy who one-ups the dimwitted sheriff–has always been ingrained in our American psyche. But it is a rather dangerous indulgence at a time when our criminal law is being reconfigured as a two-tiered system–one for those who are “like us” and therefore likable, and the other for “evildoers” who may be tossed into a pit and forgotten. The seductions of such tracking hobble our intelligence–in every sense of that word. Perhaps it is time to rethink those dual narratives: the one of transgressors whose neat and well-pressed demeanor allows for personal recognizance; and the other of statusless, legally invisible ghosts who, as John Ashcroft has insisted, don’t deserve the protections of justice. This surely risks exacerbating the raging terrors without while minimizing the carelessly authoritarian, almost suicidal sense of entitlement within.