Maine Man Tries to Build Dirty Bomb, No One Cares

A leaked FBI report states that a man named James G. Cummings was trying to build a dirty bomb when he was shot and and killed by his wife last December 9th in Belfast, Maine. He had plans, parts, explosive ingredients, and small quantities of radioactive material, though nothing that could not be purchased legally within the US. Cummings was a white supremacist who was reportedly very upset about Obama’s election.

The leaked document has been posted on Wikileaks since January 16th. While the material concerning Cummins was first noticed by the rumor site on January 19th, only yesterday was there any sort of story about it in the mainstream media, in this case the local Bangor Daily News.

Although this dastardly plot was probably not much more dangerous to the public than a garden-variety bomb, this man would certainly qualify as a bona fide “terrorist” under Bush-regime logic. Or at least he would if he was Arab. In point of fact, he actually is a threat to the public, or was. So why haven’t we heard about it? Are crazy white supremacists somehow less of a threat than crazy fundamentalist muslims?

The FBI report notes:

State authorities detected radiation emissions in four small jars in the residence labeled ‘uranium metal’, as well as one jar labeled ‘thorium.’ The four jars of uranium carried the label of an identified US company. Further preliminary analysis on 30 December 2008 indicated an unlabeled jar to be a second jar of thorium. Each bottle of uranium contained depleted uranium 238. Analysis also indicated the two jars of  thorium held thorium 232.

Depleted uranium (DU), the by-product of uranium enrichment for use in nuclear power plants or weapons, is not terribly radioactive and is reportedly not very suitable for use in a dirty bomb. Thorium is similarly weakly radioactive, and can be purchased legally through chemical supply companies (such as Fisher Scientific).  Dispersal of these isotopes wouldn’t exactly be healthy — they’re both considered carcinogens, and DU has been well documented to cause birth defects, which is why the US and Israeli armies really shouldn’t be spraying foreign countries with DU bullets. However, a depleted uranium/thorium bomb couldn’t really be considered a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, the man was on his way to building some sort of upsetting bomb. Aside from the nastyness of bombings of any sort, I am quite sure the headlines screaming “radioactivity” wouldn’t bother with the scientific subtleties I just covered. I for one am glad that the FBI finally clued in — though only because these materials were found after Cummins was shot and killed by his wife, who claimed she was defending herself after years of physical and sexual abuse.

This is all very strange, and I am left with questions.

  1. Given this foiled plot, the sadly succesful Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and other deranged loners such as the Unabomber, what is the actual risk to the public from foreign jihadists versus homegrown wackjobs, of which there are apparently plenty? [UPDATE: See also the Texas militia with a sodium cyanide bomb in 2003]
  2. Do the DHS and the FBI know the true answer to this question? Are they allocating their resources appropriately? How come we only found out about this plot accidentally?
  3. Again, the mainstream media still haven’t touched the story. Would this have been an instant headline if the guy was muslim?
  4. If domestic terrorists don’t count, why not? Is it because they’re useless in justifying foreign wars? Or is mostly ignoring them the right response, implying that we are far too jumpy about terrorism in general?
  5. This is completely ridiculous in so many ways. When do we, as a culture, decide to think rationally about terrorism?

And what would a rational approach be to terrorism be? I suggest public health as a model, which would doubtless show that if saving lives and property is the aim, we are wasting our time and money with “terrorism” as compared to, oh, I don’t know, obesity, car accidents, and global climate change.

42 thoughts on “Maine Man Tries to Build Dirty Bomb, No One Cares”

  1. Well written. You brought up some good points, particularly in reference to only Muslims being terrorists. Perhaps there would be outrage if a non-Muslim was locked in a place like Guantanamo bay?

  2. Your last paragraph is flawed.

    One of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the actions of others.

    It is NOT to protect us from our own decisions. Much government time and money is wasted, and most importantly far too many personal liberties are impaired, when people seek to push political agendas — by they against choices to enjoy cigarettes or greasy food, or having police run check points intruding into the private space of our automobiles or looking in our windows to see if we’re wearing a seat belt or talking on a phone. The cost in liberty is too great to the small benefit to society.

    Pollution is a matter of protecting us from the actions of others. That there is anything government can regulate that would impact climate change — you know, weather…something we have always complained about changing — is certainly not clear.

    There are other matters of pollution where the causal relationship is very clear and very certain but are likewise ignored because they are not as “sexy” as Islamic Terrorism or Global Climate Change. I can see the tips of maple trees in my yard dying, and I can trace this to a deficiency in soil magnesium being caused by acid rain. The dots connect clearly, consistently, and imperical observations support the hypothesis. The same can not be said about global warming.

  3. A gentleman I know, science fiction author, EMT/first responder, and former Coast Guard officer Jim Macdonald, likes to say that “a terrorist attack is simply a poorly-marked HAZMAT site.”

    He believes that terrorist attacks can, and should, be handled like any other disaster. Fundamentally, there’s no significant difference between a disaster caused by natural forces, like a tornado or earthquake, by industrial accident, or by deliberate human action.

    And the human action parts can be dealt with by law enforcement.

  4. @Matt. The same government policies that others believe will stop global warming also reduce the amount of acid rain and protect your trees. Both problems relate to burning fossil fuels. So don’t worry.

    This is not like law enforcement, where the law officers chasing Islamic bogeymen are unavailable to tackle local crime.

  5. Matt,

    Your current worldview is flawed. Libertarianism is an unflattering affectation, and inappropriate in polite, intelligent discourse. Unless, that is, you’re an over-smart and under-educated adolescent boy who still thinks Ayn Rand is a philosopher.

    There’s a utopia just for you in the world. No intrusive laws, no federal law-enforcement, no taxation. It’s called “Somalia.” You should check it out!

  6. Jonathan,

    Regarding, your question number 1 “what is the actual risk public risk of foreign jihadists”? The question belies a doubt that we face more risk externally than internally. Let me remove your doubts. We assess risk by looking at the loss from an event and the frequency by which it occurs. We then have a guideline to determine relative risk over time. So what has the cost in human life from the “the sadly succesful Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the Unabomber”, there were 168 fatalities from the latter and three from the former. By contrast, 2,998 died on 9/11. If we consider the number of US fatalities at US facilities outside the US, like the Marine Corps barracks in Beriut, the Khobar Towers bombings, the African Embassy bombings, (do I need to go on?), it only adds to the death toll and the frequency. Looking at the cost in property loss is equally disparate. What about frequency? The jihadist have been hitting us every few years since the Iranian Embassy was capturedin 1979. Who’s more motivated? All the terrorists from 9/11 died carrying out their attacks. None of the domestic terrorists thought their causes worth dying for.

    So I ask you, do you really have a question about this? Really???

    I think the national intelligence and law enforcement agencies are perfectly right to focus predominantly on religiously-motivated, well-financed, well-trained external threat of Jihad rather than domestic “whackjobs”.

  7. Jon,

    Indeed we can assess risk by multiplying loss by probability: of future events, not past ones. What you are actually doing with your analysis is proposing a model of terrorism that says that the rate is about the same over all time, and then estimating this rate by looking at historical data. Not only is there not enough data to do this — 9/11 dominates the death risk, and a single data point is not nearly enough to get a reliable estimate — but you have effectively assumed that world has stopped changing.

    In other words: if we are going to apply the mathematics of probability to estimating terrorism risks, then we have to take the mathematical requirements seriously. What this boils down to in this case of estimating rates of terrorism is that we need an underlying model that will give us quantitative predictions of the future. Needless to say, this is very difficult, because the social and political forces that lead to any particular terrorist incident are very complex. For much the same reasons, we don’t yet have accurate macro-economic forecasting models, and this is after 200 years of work on the problem.

    My question of “what is the actual risk to the public from foreign jihadists?” is therefore very complex, and I want to know how far those in a position of greatest access to the relevant information (e.g. intelligence reports) have gotten in the process of building reasonable models.

    Note that it also depends on what you include as a problem; domestic homocide kills far more people than terrorism from either foreign or domestic actors. Is this “small scale” terrorism? For that matter, car crashes kill more people still. This is one reason why I believe that terrorism is being blown all out of proportion — certainly we spend far, far more on the DHS than the public good seems to warrant.

  8. Matt said: “Your last paragraph is flawed. One of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the actions of others.”

    Last ¶ said: “…wasting our time and money with terrorism…compared to obesity, car accidents, and global climate change.”

    The last paragraph doesn’t say anything about government. Doctors and restaurants can spend time and money fighting obesity if the people demand it—healthy food costs more money; car companies can make safer cars; and better, more efficient technology can counteract climate change. Government spending isn’t the only way a society spends its resources. In fact, citizens can choose to buy healthier foods, and less polluting cars and other products, when the government takes less of their money to “fight terrorism”.

  9. I like 4 and 5. Limiting publicity given to criminals who are seeking attention can be a good deterrent to other crazy people who want attention.

  10. @Matt:

    You left out the other side of your cigarette and greasy food argument: all those who participate in such activities should be excluded from public or private support when the inevitable downside occurs. Fair’s fair. The costs are imposed on both public and private actors. Same with motorcycle helmets: don’t wear one, then you get no assistance if you have a head injury. The list goes on.

    You’re just regurgitating the old Right Wing wish: socialize costs while privatizing benefits/profits. You want the private benefit of cigarettes, but want society to take care of your lung cancer. Doesn’t matter whether the cost is paid directly from a private insurer or Medicare/Medicaid; we all end up paying more for insurance and your cancer treatment.

  11. I’ve been wondering about 9/11 vs. traffic accidents. Matt is right when he draws the distinction between protecting us from others vs. protecting us from ourselves, but his thinking beyond that is flawed. Robert covered most of it, but I’d like to throw in a little factoid or two of my own, relating to the regulation of cars.

    3000 people died in 9/11. That many people die EVERY MONTH in the USA due to car crashes. Many of those deaths are self-inflicted, but quite a few are caused by others. Besides careless drivers, whom to blame?

    (1) Blame SUVs. The probability of being killed when hit by an SUV ranges from 2 (small SUV like an XTerra) to 6 (F350 and the like) TIMES that of being killed by a car. The popularity-weighted average seems to be about 3 times. If 25% of vehicles on the roads are SUVs (check me on that), and if SUVs have collisions with about the same frequency that cars do (this is known to be wrong–SUVs are MORE likely to cause accidents due largely to poor handling, but I don’t know the factor) then getting all of them off the roads would save about 7000 lives per year. Who really cares about 3000 killed every few decades by terrorists, compared to that? Incidentally, SUVs are more dangerous than cars to their occupants as well. Check the numbers yourself!

    (2) Blame city planners and the auto industry lobbyists they obey. Governments DO have the power to make societies amenable to bicycling, public transportation, etc. This would drastically reduce not only transportation-related deaths, but the death toll to obesity-related illnesses (check out the health statistics in cities with good subways vs. cities without), to pollution-related injuries (check out causes of disease in polluted cities vs. ones with fresh air), to global warming (yes, there have been some, and the worst projections suggest perhaps even billions more within 50 years)…

    (3) Of course, blame the USA vehicle licensing system for giving licenses away like candy. But if bad drivers failed their driving tests, they would have to bicycle or take public transportation, and in most parts of the USA that is untenable. In order for (3) to work, we first need (2). Let’s get on it, shall we?

    If society makes decisions that hurt its members, should government intervene? Can a democratic government protect a society from itself???

  12. When the federal building was blown up in Oklahoma City I remember Tom Brokaw making it very clear that it was the work of Islamic terrorists and the fact that occured on the anniversary of the FBI raid in Waco Texas was just a coincidence.Of course this is the same guy who got sued by Richard Jewel over the Olympic Park bombing carried out by Eric Rudolph.It’s like the MSM don’t want to acknowledge we have homegrown hate groups who commit acts of terrorism.

  13. Matt from CT, your 2nd sentence is flawed.

    “One of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the actions of others.”

    No, the primary purpose of government is not to protect its citizenry from the actions of others. Its purpose is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Nothing is said about protecting its citizens. Don’t forget that.

  14. If you’re worried about radioactivity, then you should be looking at cigarettes. No, I’m serious about this. Try Googling “radioactive cigarettes” (don’t use quotes!). You’ll be very surprised.

    You should look at this because a) almost no one knows about it, although that’s gradually changing, and b) it kills 440,000 people a year.

    People like Surgeon-General Everett C. Koop are quoted about this, saying (and I quote) “Tobacco radiation is responsible for 90% of lung cancer.” Center for Disease Control says “”Americans are exposed to far more radiation from tobacco smoke than from any other source.” You probably know about all the fuss about radon; well, this is partly a radon problem.

    Tobacco companies switched to a fertilizer called “apatite” around 1930 that was high in phosphates. This made for a much ‘tastier’ cigarette. Unfortunately, it was also high in naturally occurring radioactives. Tobacco plants just love to concentrate this stuff in their leaves, and using phosphate fertilizer year after year builds up the concentration in the soil. These are alpha emitters generally — pretty safe as long as you don’t ingest them or take them in through a cut in your skin.

    So we end up with “radon” and “radon daughters”, all radioactives, which then decay down to “polonium-210”, which was what that Russian journalist (Alexander Litvinenko) had put into his drink which fried him from radiation from the inside out, and finally to lead-210.

    Do I need to point out that lead is bad for you? We banned lead from paint a long time ago, and more recently, from gasoline, because of this.

    If Osama had half a brain, he’d go straight, and open up a tobacco business to whack Americans. But he’s not very bright, when you get right down to it.



  15. @ Chris
    No, the primary purpose of government is to govern. And my Government’s purpose is not to “..protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”, because I live somewhere else.

    Be very careful how you say things when you start telling other people that their sentences are flawed :o)

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  17. My thoery on why this wasn’t picked up and the news cycle? On Friday 16th of January 2009 Airbus crashes in New York river. That story happened the same day as the wiki-links info was posted. Then there was the weekend orgy of joy and heroism in the media. Three days later the DJIA dropped ~300 points. It basically got buried in the news cycle is my theory.

    Also he didn’t really have a dirty bomb. He had a bomb and some stuff to make a radium watch (or it’s inoffensive equivalent) and lastly he was dead so the story was basically over.

    The mudane answers most questions. That or Money.

  18. Churchill compared the American people to the “good Germans” of Nazi Germany, claiming that the vast majority of Americans had ignored the civilian suffering caused by the sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s, which he characterized as a policy of genocide.

    The essay was later expanded into a book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which won Honorable Mention for the Gustavus Myers Human Rights Award in 2004.

    I watched the video on YouTube of Rod Parsley and am disgusted. Parsley’s diatribe is so far from any smidgen of truth and much more insulting and yet McCain gets a free pass to seek his endorsement and nobody pays attention, least of all the MSM. To be fair, the NY Times has run some editorials on the subject of Hagee, Falwell and McCain, but that’s all they are – editorials. Am I surprised? No. But I am constantly disappointed and disgusted by our so-called “free press”.Check out the Parsley film at

    or response-

  19. “Matt from CT” wrote:

    “One of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the actions of others.
    It is NOT to protect us from our own decisions.”

    If you believe the above argument to be true, Matt, than you must realize that the government should protect us from the actions of others when the results of their actions could have a negative impact on us (i.e.: our tax money being used to pay for any of your unpaid medical bills to treat the illnesses and/or injuries incurred as the result of “your own decisions”).

  20. @Matt

    You wrote:

    “One of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the actions of others.
    It is NOT to protect us from our own decisions.”

    If you believe the above argument to be true, Matt, than you must realize that the government should protect us from the actions of others when the results of their actions could have a negative impact on us (i.e.: our tax money being used to pay for any of your unpaid medical bills to treat the illnesses and/or injuries incurred as the result of “your own decisions”).

  21. The smell of freedom includes being able to think about killing your neighbor and even possessing certain tools like scissors and hammers that could actually kill your neighbor.

    The dividing line is being in the act of using simple tools to kill OR nearing completion of tools that can rapidly kill multiple targets at a distance (at not without a license).

  22. Whilst researching Nazi efforts by Drs. Schumann & Trinks to build nuclear weapons between 1942 and 1944 by transmuting Thorium into Protactinium 233 with cyclotrons which can be home made, it gradually dawned upon me that anybody with a little Thorium, or Uranium 238 can build a very REAL Atomic bomb… Not just a “dirty bomb”

    Whilst I understand one does not wish to encourage copy cats, the truth is it is far more simple to build a home made atomic bomb than the authorities dare admit.

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