Concerns grow about political violence in US after Coast Guard officer's arrest

    U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, center, of the District of Maryland, speaks as Art Walker, left, special agent from the Coast Guard investigative service, and Gordon Johnson, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, listen during a news conference about Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, outside the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)

    A Coast Guard lieutenant accused of planning domestic terrorist attacks targeting Democratic politicians and members of the media has been ordered held without bail for two weeks while prosecutors consider filing additional charges.

    Christopher Hasson, 49, is currently only charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by an unlawful user or addict of controlled substances, but prosecutors say that is “the proverbial tip of the iceberg.”

    Arresting officers found 15 guns, at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than 30 bottles of human growth hormone in Hasson’s basement apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland that they believe he intended to use to commit mass murder. They also uncovered evidence of neo-Nazi sympathies and white nationalist ideology.

    “No condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community writ large,” prosecutors argued in a motion for detention.

    At a federal court hearing Thursday, Hasson’s public defender dismissed the “histrionic characterization” of him in the court documents and noted he has no criminal record. She also accused the government of trying to “criminalize thoughts.”

    Among other things, prosecutors quoted a draft email recovered from a deleted folder on Hasson’s computer in which he states, “I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth.”

    A spreadsheet prosecutors believe was a list of intended targets included MSNBC journalists Chris Hayes, Joe Scarborough, and Ari Melber, Democratic leaders in Congress, “Sen blumen jew” (presumably Sen. Richard Blumenthal), “poca warren” (probably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, referred to by President Trump as Pocahontas), and “cortez” (likely freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

    According to a motion to detain Hasson until trial, he compiled that list last month while reviewing the MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News websites from his work computer. On the same day, he conducted Google searches for phrases like “best places in dc to see congress people,” “where in dc to congress live,” and “civil war if trump impeached.”

    Hasson Affidavit by on Scribd

    Although his apparent hitlist suggests Hasson has been influenced by recent political rhetoric, prosecutors say his writings indicate a hatred and bloodlust that had been simmering for years. In a 2017 draft letter to a neo-Nazi leader quoted in court filings, Hasson allegedly claimed to be “a long time White Nationalist” who had been a skinhead for three decades.

    “We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost,” Hasson wrote in Sep. 2017, according to court documents. “How long we can hold out there and prevent the n*****ization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen.”

    Citing his online searches and computer activity, prosecutors claimed Hasson pored over the manifesto authored by Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011 in the name of “Crusader Nationalism,” and Hasson’s apparent stockpiling of weapons and other tactics followed Breivik’s guidance.

    “The fact that he was so much influenced by Breivik reminds us this is not only a domestic American phenomenon or problem, that these sorts of people find each other and influence each other across international borders,” said Susan Benesch, executive director of the Dangerous Speech Project.

    Prosecutors alleged Hasson was plotting violence “on a scale rarely seen in this country,” but statistics show violence fueled by hatred over politics, race, or religion is not as rare as it used to be. FBI records showed hate crime reports rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, with more than half of those cases motivated by race or ethnicity, and crimes targeting Jews were up by about 37 percent.

    Nathan Kalmoe, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University who is working on a book about mass partisanship and political violence, stressed the violence itself is not new, and American history is filled with literal duels between political rivals, assassinations, riots, terrorism, and of course the Civil War. However, there has been a troubling uptick in violent activity.

    “We know from FBI reports and from security officials at the U.S. Capitol that threats against elected officials are substantially higher in now than they were in past decades,” he said. “Alongside evidence of increasing hostility in public opinion surveys, increasing threats against politicians suggest greater risks for violent political acts today.”

    A few months ago, a supporter of President Trump allegedly mailed pipe bombs to several of his critics in politics and the press. None of the devices detonated, but the attempted attacks ratcheted up tension in the final days of an already fraught midterm election campaign.

    Also in late Oct. 2018, a mass shooting believed to be committed by an anti-Semitic white nationalist at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 people dead. Weeks before that, federal agents foiled an upstate New York man’s alleged plot to detonate a 200-pound bomb on the National Mall on Election Day.

    A year earlier, in Aug. 2017, tensions between neo-Nazi marchers and liberal counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia combusted into chaos, resulting in one woman’s death. Right-wing demonstrators and anti-fascist protesters have clashed violently on numerous other occasions around the country since Trump took office.

    Last week, a Texas man was sentenced to eight years in prison over an incident in July 2017 when he was found in a wooded area outside Dallas with a partially 3-D-printed rifle and a list of home and office addresses for Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

    In June 2017, a group of congressional Republicans narrowly averted tragedy when a gunman opened fire on their baseball practice at an Alexandria, Virginia park. Several people were wounded, including then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise, but no one was killed except the shooter.

    A far-fetched conspiracy theory involving a child trafficking ring supposedly run out of the basement of a D.C. pizzeria led a North Carolina man to storm Comet Ping Pong with a gun in 2016. The restaurant was apparently targeted again recently by an arsonist.

    Political violence in the U.S. remains rare enough that Benesch said it is difficult to draw conclusions about whether it is happening more often, but anecdotal evidence like the cases above suggests it is.

    “I am even more convinced the number of people who are fantasizing about it and are thinking of committing mass violence for political reasons is growing,” she said.

    Incidents of politically-motivated violence inevitably lead to finger-pointing and blame-shifting as partisans attempt to tie the suspects to heated rhetoric coming from the other side. The truth is typically more complicated.

    “What’s happening now is that people who have held such extremist viewpoints have been emboldened by top-down rhetoric that seems to condone, or at least fails to condemn, open hostility toward certain groups of people, particularly racial and ethnic minorities but also including other groups,” said Christopher Strain, a professor of American studies at Florida Atlantic University and author of “Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life.”

    According to Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, both sides bear some blame for destigmatizing political violence and failing to unequivocally reject it.

    “Today, the polarization of the nation has translated into outrageously harsh rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans. This is not sufficient cause for any particular violent act, but it makes it less unacceptable when one’s partisan enemies are the victim,” he said.

    Kalmoe described President Trump as both a consequence and a cause of these trends. Partisan passions were already high before the 2016 campaign, but they have only risen higher since.

    “President Trump has been more explicit than any other high-profile party leader in encouraging violence by his supporters and in attacking political opponents, democratic institutions, and the press with more vitriol than any prominent leader in recent memory,” he said. “He represents a more extreme version of pre-existing trends. His leadership and reactions to his presidency are reinforcing hostile trends and encouraging other leaders and citizens to follow suit.”

    Trump critics often point to his violent rhetoric and incitement of animus against Democrats, the media, and immigrants, while the president’s supporters say his opponents’ hyperbolic attacks on him encourage violence from the left.

    Some journalists who were on Hasson’s alleged hitlist have directly tied his actions to the president’s attacks on the media. On “Morning Joe” Thursday, Scarborough said behavior like this is “exactly what Donald Trump is encouraging,”

    “These things don’t happen in a vacuum. The president’s words matter. Just look at the suspect’s list of targets,” CNN anchor Don Lemon said on his show Wednesday night.

    Benesch said the targeting of journalists is becoming more common among neo-Nazis, but it is not yet entirely clear what is driving that trend.

    “There are certain groups of people white nationalists have seen as their enemies for decades,” she said. “Journalists, however, have been, from what we have seen, a persistent and relatively new target in the last three or four years.”

    Research Kalmoe conducted with political scientist Liliana Mason showed 24 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats believe it is sometimes acceptable to send threats to public officials, and 9 percent in both parties support violence if their opponent wins the 2020 presidential election.

    “Part – not all – of the problem is that, for the first time in memory in the United States, the public is against violence mostly when the victims are politically aligned with them,” Vatz said.

    These cases often lead to emphatic calls for politicians to tone down rhetoric, but those calls are rarely heeded.

    “The strength of our democracy depends on our ability to have civil debate without fear of retribution. We settle our differences at the ballot box, not with weapons and threats to incite violence,” Rep. Scalise wrote in a Fox News op-ed last fall accusing Democrats of threatening and harassing Republican lawmakers and officials.

    Such appeals are dismissed as partisan and quickly forgotten in a volatile political atmosphere where new outrages and divisions are emerging constantly.

    “First, the calls are not particularly genuine,” Strain said. “President Trump called for unity in his State of the Union address earlier this month and followed this call almost immediately with name-calling and divisiveness. And second, they’re not followed by political action or policy change.”

    Many questions remain about Hasson’s case and what inspired his alleged hate, but even if investigators do find political rhetoric nearly fueled a series of domestic terrorist attacks, experts are skeptical Trump or anyone else will behave much differently as a result.

    “We have to count on leaders and voters to hold themselves accountable, and they rarely have political incentives to do that,” Kalmoe said. “Anger actually helps mobilize positive forms of political participation, in addition to violence, which is why the incentives are stacked against dialing down the hostility.”

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