This Progamming Brought to You by the F.B.I.

There’s little question that the four men arrested for plotting a series of terror attacks north of New York City are creeps. One’s a purse snatcher who collects urine. Another boasts of being willing to murder to save $700. One dealt drugs behind a school. Not much is available on the fourth man, besides the fact that he recently identified himself as a Catholic. (Two others described themselves to prison officials as Baptists, but all seem to be converts to a bastardized Islam, largely of their own imagining.) We’re surely better off with these characters off the street. And too little is known for anyone to raise the cry of “entrapment.”

But there’s something in the press accounts of the F.B.I.s sting that suggests an almost ritual performance of terror plotting more than the real thing. The sting began with a man arrested for identity theft, who, appropriately enough, worked his way out of a trial by agreeing to become a confidential informant, posing as a jihadist — another form of identity theft. He made a nuisance of himself at a Newburgh, New York mosque, blathering on about jihad and trying to buy accomplices. Most the members of the mosque apparently thought he was weird, possibly dangerous, and to be avoided. And so most of them did so, except for the plotters, who are unquestionably weird, possibly dangerous, and to be avoided.

I say that they’re “possibly” because they don’t seem like the brightest bulbs on the porch. “Plotting” seems like too grand a verb to describe these dimwits’ attempts to arm themselves, which involved driving around lower New York state in search of a gun, massively overpaying for one, and dreaming of stinger missiles. Those dreams would have remained in the realm of fantasy, it seems, had not the FBI’s man arranged for this clueless crew to buy a dud, from the FBI, of course.

Which is where the story turns absurd, with the FBI searching for a stage set upon which to enact the ritual transfer of faux firepower. The Stamford, Connecticut police made themselves available as a stage crew, and the curtains went up, and the show, the prosecutors tell us, was a great success.

But this was no traditional bit of theater. It was a reality show, not so much Big Brother (a la 1984, that is) as The Surreal Life, a gathering of sad sacks and wanna-bes. According to the NYT,

Remarkably, vast passages of the conspiracy the federal authorities described — the talk of killing Jews, the testing of the men’s would-be weaponry — played out on a veritable soundstage of hidden cameras and secret microphones, and involved material provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A house in Newburgh, a storage facility in Stamford, the planting of the would-be bombs in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale — everything was recorded, according to the complaint.

Well, good. These are some bad men. But not very competent ones. Indeed, let’s give credit where credit is due — from the opening titles to the big finale, the Bronx Bomb Case looks like it was an F.B.I. production.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).