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.”