Lucas John Helder wanted to go around the country putting bombs in mailboxes in order to make a giant smiley face.
Wouldn't it have been less risky to use chocolate-chip cookies?
The notes in the mailbox could have said, "The government is evil. Have a nice day."
The "smiley face" comment Helder uttered to a Pershing County deputy made the 21-year-old college student the butt of jokes around the world.
Time.com even made him its Person of the Week, "for fitting so neatly into both our preconceived notions of 'domestic terrorist' and 'perfectly pleasant boy next door.'"
Maybe with the state of the world today, we needed some kind of emotional outlet for our fears. The bomber as cartoon character. Mixed-up kid looking for attention.
Yes, Helder was trying to get attention. Talk about your desperate pleas for help.
But the smiley-face absurdity only distracted us from the seriousness of his actions.
I was shocked when I read the contents of some of the "anti-government" notes that accompanied his mailbox bombs.
"More 'attention getters' are on the way," read one. "If I could, I would change only one person, unfortunately the resources are not accessible. It seems killing a single famous person would get the same media attention as killing numerous un-famous humans. There is less risk of being detained, associated with dismissing certain people."
Those aren't the words of someone whose ultimate goal was to create a happy face across the nation.
Compare the images we have of 21-year-old Lucas Helder, blonde, boyish and grinning at the cameras as we was led out of the federal courthouse in Reno, with the first pictures we saw of 20-year-old John Walker Lindh, dark, bearded and grim when he was accused of trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
"Though one man was considered a typical American in his early 20s and the other was an eccentric practitioner of a religion not native to his home, their actions were equally shocking," wrote Morgan Felchner, an editor of the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin where Helder sent one of his letters. "Helder's friends and neighbors have said the same things people always say in these situations: he wanted to get his opinions out, he never seemed like a violent person, and he was a typical kid.
"Walker was described as peaceful, spiritual and tolerant.
"Yet both men can be considered terrorists ...."
Both were disillusioned with their country, and both turned to violence as a way to express their frustrations. And, I think, both had a fundamental inability to understand the consequences of their actions.
Lindh's was the more deliberate route, as his journey took him far from his California home to a foreign land and new religion. He found himself in circumstances that perhaps were unforseeable when he started studying Islam at age 16. By the end, though, it seems clear that he was aware he had joined a terrorist organization.
Asked at one point about his experience in Afghanistan, Lindh replied "It's exactly what I thought it would be."
When the reporter asked if he believed he was fighting on the right side, Lindh allegedly replied: "Definitely."
For Helder, on the other hand, his journey seemed to be little more than the kind of road trip most Midwestern college students set out on, only he took bombs instead of beers.
If there was indeed a design to create a smiley face across America, that was apparently about as far as his planning got. If he was trying to make a statement, he should have spent less time on the smiley face and more time pondering what he was trying to say.
"The United States strives to provide freedom for their people," read a Helder note. "Do we really have personal freedom? I've lived here many years, and I see much limitation. Does the definition of freedom include limitation?"
Yes, it does.
Most of the time we called it "responsibility." But it doesn't take a philosopher to understand the limit on my freedom begins exactly where it encroaches on somebody else's.
Helder and Lindh had freedom. They rejected it -- violently. Now there's a good chance neither one of them will ever have it again.
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