72 hours of hell

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72 hours of hell

It all happened in 72 hours.

On Wednesday, Gregory Bush was charged with killing two African-Americans at a Kentucky grocery store while shouting white supremacist slogans. On Friday, Cesar Sayoc, a Trump super-fan who regularly threatened Democrats on Twitter, was charged with attempting a mass assassination of Democratic political leaders and CNN employees. On Saturday morning, Robert Bowers allegedly entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and, shouting anti-Semitic slurs, gunned down 11 people.

Trump was sure of one thing: his political rhetoric had nothing to do with the violence. "I think I've been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up," Trump said on Friday. But the timing was particularly disturbing. Trump and other Republicans have recently embraced the conspiracy theory that George Soros was funding a migrant caravan to infiltrate the U.S. border.

On Saturday, after the mass murder in Pittsburgh, Trump condemned the attack but blamed the synagogue for not having more security. Then he continued with his schedule, including a political rally in Illinois.  

To try to gain some insight into what's happening, I spoke with two experts: Kurt Braddock, a professor at Penn State University who focuses on communication and terrorism, and Amarnath Amarasingam, a Ph.D. and senior research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Do you view these crimes as primarily the product of disturbed individuals? Or is the political environment a contributing factor? And, if so, how?

BRADDOCK: Nearly every time something like this happens, we see people arguing that the individual was either “radical” or “crazy.” Meaning that the person’s motivations stemmed from some ideology that they were acting out, or because they were mentally disturbed. I think it’s a mistake to frame it this way. It doesn’t need to be an either/or situation.

Mentally disturbed people can be just as influenced by political rhetoric as those who are not mentally disturbed. Studies have shown that when people who rate high in psychoticism have prolonged exposure to violence, they see violence as a viable tactic for resolving conflict. Unfortunately, President Trump has been flippant in his endorsement of violence against some individuals, including one of Sayoc’s targets—CNN.

Sayoc’s family’s lawyer recently said that Sayoc found a “father-figure” in Trump. I am not in a position to comment on Sayoc’s sanity, but if what the lawyer says is true, then the extreme rhetoric coming out of some parts of the right could certainly have partially motivated his actions. The fact that his “father-figure” has not specifically condemned right-wing extremists could have been perceived as tacit approval of his actions.

AMARASINGAM: The question of whether they are disturbed individuals or whether they are the result of a toxic political environment is not mutually exclusive. These things often work together. In other words, disturbed individuals can be drawn to political ideologies that make sense of their struggles, ascribe blame to an out-group, and give them an identified in-group which gives them pride and purpose.

What is the link between online conspiracy theories and violent extremism?

BRADDOCK: Generally speaking, conspiracy theories can serve to make individuals think that they are victimized or under attack by forces they can’t see. For some individuals, if they feel that they have no options for how to affect change, they may come to think violence is the only solution. When that happens, they strike out at those they believe are responsible for their perceived victimization.

Consider Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. He believed that Jews generally and HIAS (a Jewish refugee support organization) specifically were responsible for smuggling Jewish individuals in the migrant caravan and that those individuals were coming to “kill our people.” Of course, there is no evidence for this sort of thing, but buying into these ideas seems to have had some role in Bowers’ decision to kill.

It’s important to note that once again, the rhetoric used by some elements of the far right reinforces some of the ideas Bowers seemed to have adhered to. Whether the rhetoric itself was persuasive to Bowers remains to be seen, but anti-Semites have grown increasingly emboldened in recent years, and the normalization of that rhetoric can be seen by violent actors as a justification for their actions.

AMARASINGAM: In the case of the bomber, it seems at least from his online profile that he basically was attracted to every conspiracy out there when it came to the Democrats and liberals. This is important because people often believe that conspiratorial individuals must, by their very nature, mistrust all authority. This is not necessarily the case. They often trust the authority of their in-group and mistrust everything about the out-group, and also come to believe that the out-group deeply threatens the survival of the in-group. As you go further down this kind of thinking, it seems clear how you could come to see violence as not only permissible but necessary.

Do you expect to see more or less of this kind of violence in the future?

BRADDOCK: Incidents of terrorism are notoriously difficult to predict, but unfortunately, I’d suspect we’ll be seeing more of this kind of violence in the future, particularly if there is not clear and unambiguous condemnation from the individuals that inspire them. By failing to speak out emphatically against these individuals (rather than, say, pass them off as crazy), President Trump can be seen as giving tacit approval to the ideologies that underpin the attacks.

As long as extreme elements of the right-wing feel that violent actions will resolve what they’ve been told are threats to the United States, we can expect more attacks like this.

AMARASINGAM: I think we are likely to see more of this, unfortunately. I think what people miss about Trump sometimes is his continually solidifying of the boundaries of his in-group – who he and his base think qualify to be part of the American family. This is why so many people got a weird taste in their mouth when he called himself a nationalist. I would argue that all political leaders are nationalists, but when Trump says it, people hear it differently. It gets filtered through months of abusive and hateful language against women, minorities, and anyone who is not part of his camp. This is what is really poisonous. While most people who are Trump supporters are not going to feel that it is morally necessary to eliminate his enemies, it is only a hop and skip from his deeply polarizing language.

Does it surprise you that none of the bombs Sayoc allegedly sent injured anyone?

BRADDOCK: No, actually. The investigation is ongoing, so more information about the nature of the bombs will come out, but I suspect we will find one of two things. First, it’s possible the bombs were never meant to explode, but only to scare. Second, it’s equally likely that Sayoc did not know what he was doing when he made the bombs.

Despite often being described as “crude devices,” bombs require skill to make. It’s very possible that Sayoc did not have the skill to create working explosives. We will soon find out about the sorts of material that was in the devices, how much damage they could have done, and so on.

Let me be emphatic though – it doesn’t matter whether he meant for the bombs to go off or not. Whether the bombs were real, fake, operational, or non-operational, the facts of his case thus far suggest that his actions amount to terrorism. Terrorism is not only the actual violence that occurs, but the message that is conveyed by the threat of future violence. Threats of violence for political goals constitute terrorism.

What's the function of all the “false flag” allegations that have been floating around?

AMARASINGAM: All the false flag allegations around this issue is a typical attempt at easing cognitive dissonance among the far-right. The far-right has gained so much popularity and such a strong following by presenting Islam and Muslims and jihadism as the only real threat that the world needs to address. That once Islam is debunked, once Muslims are prevented from entering the country, once liberals stop covering for violent Muslims under the guise of political correctness, everything will be ok. The problem with this view is that it is so black and white, and so vested in the purity of white people and Western culture that when violence is done in its name, cognitive dissonance sets in and must be addressed in order for the worldview to remain intact.

The primary role of conspiracy theories, false flag theories and so on has been to alleviate cognitive dissonance and convince followers that their worldview isn’t wrong. Not only is their worldview not wrong, but outsiders are actively plotting to paint it as wrong. We see this after every major school shooting, after Charlottesville, during these bomb plots, and we will continue to see it. For a restrictive, black and white, worldview to survive challenges to it, there need to be ways to alleviate the effects of events and trends that disagree with how they see the world. It’s fundamental to its survival.

Do you think the Soros conspiracies — he’s funding the migrant caravan, the anti-Kavanaugh protests — are significant in understanding the Pittsburgh attack?

AMARASINGAM: If it’s confirmed that Bower is a white supremacist, I would say that these globalist conspiracies would be very much part of his worldview.

What else should people know?

BRADDOCK: The basis of my research is that words have impact. There will be a significant amount of finger-pointing in the coming days about who is at fault for these attacks. And while the fault for violence ultimately rests at the feet of the person that performs it, it’s important to realize that violence never occurs in a vacuum. Attackers absorb information, interpret it, and act on it in a way they see fit—often with tragic consequences.

It’s true that words can’t pull triggers or mail bombs, but they can inspire people to do so. And escalating rhetoric will do nothing to slow the next would-be attacker.


Say their names

Too often, in the case of political violence, the attacker becomes famous, and the victims remain in obscurity. Thirteen people lost their lives in the attacks this week. These are their names:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

Jeffersontown, Kentucky

Maurice Stallard, 69
Vickie Jones, 67


UPDATE: Intel ends financial support of Congressman Steve King

The October 18 edition of Popular Information focused on Congressman Steve King (R-IA), who has a history of embracing white supremacists and espousing racist views. Most recently, King endorsed an openly white supremacist candidate for mayor of Toronto.

Nevertheless, King continues to attract financial support from some of America's most prominent corporations and trade groups. For his 2018 campaign, King received contributions from AT&T ($5,000), Berkshire Hathaway ($2,500), the American Bankers Association ($9,000), Land O’Lakes ($2,500), Intel ($2,000), and many others.

But in an internal October 25 email obtained by Popular Information, Intel's Director of Policy and External Partnerships, Dawn Jones, said that Intel was ending its financial support. After reviewing King's public statements, Jones wrote, the company determined they "conflict with Intel values" and "we are no longer donating to his campaigns."

We had engaged with Rep. King because of his support for IP theft protections, which is important to Intel’s business. However, an Intel employee raised concerns about the donations earlier this month. We looked into the congressman’s public statements and determined that they conflict with Intel values. As a result, we are no longer donating to his campaigns.

There has been no response thus far from AT&T or the other corporate donors to King's campaign.


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