Imagine that you’re in the FBI and you receive a tip — or more likely, pick up information through the kind of mass surveillance in which the national security state now specializes. In a series of tweets, a young man has expressed sympathy for the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, or another terrorist group or cause. He’s 16, has no criminal record, and has shown no signs that he might be planning a criminal act. He does, however, seem angry and has demonstrated an interest in following ISIS’s social media feeds as they fan the flames of youth discontent worldwide. He’s even expressed some thoughts about how ISIS’s “caliphate,” the Islamic “homeland” being carved out in Syria and Iraq, might be a place where people like him could find meaning and purpose in an otherwise alienated life.
A quick search of his school records shows that his grades, previously stellar, are starting to fall. He’s spending more time online, increasingly clicking on jihadist websites. He has, you discover, repeatedly read news stories about mass killings in the U.S. Worse yet, his parents own legally registered guns. A search of his medical records shows that he’s been treated by a psychiatrist.