Falling for Columbine.
Both Ross McKnight (the son of a police officer, no less) and Matthew Swift were found not guilty of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions, their plans for a supposed massacre at a school in Manchester as well as the bombing of a shopping centre on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine massacre ripped to shreds both by the defence, McKnight's father, who seemed to have sealed the verdict when he talked of his son's many "harebrained" schemes and finally by the jury. What really seems to have gone on here is nothing more than teenage angst and alienation being taken slightly too far up the scale. The rants the pair wrote in diaries are hardly out of the ordinary: the only real surprise might be that they didn't post them on a social networking site or somewhere else where they were even more easily accessible. The other slight indication that this went any further than just two friends messing around and engaging in fantasies was that they had "plans" of the school, although whether these were just simple sketches of outlines which they made themselves or genuine plans we don't seem to know.
It's easy to make presumptions, but you can't help but feel that if they hadn't mentioned Columbine or supposedly fetishised the two murderers who carried out that most notorious of school shootings, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or were meant to have planned to carry it out on the anniversary of their assault, that this "plot" wouldn't have got anywhere near the court system. There is indeed perhaps some cause for concern in this area: it's quite true that some teenagers, especially those who feel themselves outsiders or not accepted by their peers, not to mention those who are bullied, can engage in the kind of fantasies which these two boys were meant to have, and while such feelings of striking out at those that have harmed them are natural and are very rarely acted upon, they do need to be nipped in the bud. Some of those at the very extreme end of this type of thinking do indeed idolise the likes of Harris and Klebold; Seung-Hui Cho in his claim of responsibility for the Virigina Tech massacre referred to both as martyrs, and there is a strain of thinking surrounding such spree-killers that all such attacks are in fact copy-cat crimes, a view that I'm partial to. The vast majority though who dream or fantasise about doing violence to their tormentors never do; hell, I can even remember at one point during my early teenage years writing a list of those that I'd kill if I had the chance. As far as I'm aware I never carried through on my written promise.
Undoubtedly the female friend that reported McKnight's drunken referral to the supposed attack was right to let the authorities know of her concerns. That was though surely as far as it should have gone. Dave Osler compares the case to that of the "lyrical terrorist", Samina Malik, but if anything a far wider comparison to terrorism is equally applicable. Just as in cases like that involving Dhiren Barot, neither McKnight or Swift had the guns or explosives necessary to carry out their plans, nor the funds to get hold of them but they did have ideas or nous which suggested they could have done. As it happens, Barot's ideas were even more fantastical than the teenage pair's were, whether it involved destroying builders by filling limos with gas canisters, a plan thoroughly debunked by the Glasgow airport idiots, exploding a bomb on the Underground which would somehow penetrate the tunnel and cause the Thames to flood in, or constructing a dirty bomb out of smoke alarms by placing the americium he harvested from them in a coke can. He however was sentenced to 30 years in prison, more on the fact that he had been trained and probably had connections with al-Qaida, even if his ideas were even more harebrained that McKnight's. Interesting here is that Swift had a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook, a book which another teenager was previously prosecuted for possessing, despite it being freely available, as well as also a gun which could fire ball bearings. You can bet that if someone with links to extremist Islam had either that they would have also been indicted on similar charges.
The terrorist trials where the prosecution have tried and almost always convinced juries that that extremists were only days or weeks away from mass murder or horrific casualties are perhaps the significant precursor to both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service imagining that they could do much the same in this instance. It does though have to be asked, did they genuinely believe their own case, or rather did those unlucky enough to prosecute it believe it? It certainly doesn't seem, for instance, that the headmaster of the school believed it. There is of course a very fine line between caution and a potential tragedy, but in this instance what just seems to have been very normal teenage ennui could have been criminalised, and if they weren't bitter and depressed prior to their time on remand, McKnight and Swift very well may be now.