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When is a Crime Just a Crime?

Paranoid schizophrenia is sometimes described as a tendency to see too many connections among different events—as was the case in the movie A Beautiful Mind, where the brilliant scientist John Nash saw conspiracies and secret codes in everyday news stories. In an era where more crimes than ever before are suspected of having a link to terrorism, it is reasonable to wonder how much of this is paranoia.

A series of break-ins in Texas illustrate how difficult it can be to distinguish a garden-variety crime from preparation for an act of terrorism. In the Houston area in September and October, intruders broke into transmitter sites at 11 radio stations and two television stations, cutting power to the transmitters. Although circumstances behind the intrusions have varied, in most cases, few items were taken.

In many instances, locks were removed, outdoor lights were disabled, and electrical boxes were damaged. Somebody also riffled through maintenance logs at several of the sites. Similar break-ins had previously occurred 180 miles to the south, in Corpus Christi.

Noting that expensive equipment was left untouched, station officials feared that the incidents were dry-runs by terrorists. One concern was that terrorists were checking for response times to alarms or taking the measure of the building’s layout and figuring out how the equipment could be used.

The terrorists’ ultimate objective might, they conjectured, be disruption of emergency broadcasting in case of a disaster. Station managers took their concerns to the police.

Police acknowledged that the break-ins did not fit the normal crime pattern. “In all my years working on the street as a patrolman, I never heard of one” like this, says Sergeant Jeff Stauber of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston.

Police departments, sheriffs offices, and even the FBI have been brought into the case. Investigating along terrorism lines has led nowhere, however. “We have absolutely no information that would even point us in that direction,” Stauber says.

Perhaps that’s because the incidents are not part of a grand conspiracy after all. In fact, there is evidence that the attacks are little more than local worker revenge, not the makings of a terrorist plot. Scrawled on the wall of one break-in site were these words: “I was fired unjustly.”

But that could be a diversionary tactic to throw police off. As they said in the 1960s: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.