On My Experience With Domestic Terror

I originally wrote this as a Twitter thread a few minutes after the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh broke this morning. I thought there was some more to expand on. So I’m posting the thread plus some more here on my blog.

It’s hard for me to get away from the things I learned in my old life when I see the behavioral patterns show up in America today.  There’s more rational thought in mass shootings and serial bombings than people think. That’s not to say that those committing them aren’t monsters or don’t suffer from mental health or other disturbing issues. It’s simply to say that there are patterns and causes beyond hysterical delusions worth understanding.

Random acts of violence, by definition have no pattern. If they do, they’re not random. And there’s work that can be done once the pattern reveals itself.

I used to chase suicide bombers for a living. My team was supposed to find them and stop them before they did what they did. One learns a few things about terrorism by looking at the problem through the unforgiving lens of only caring about stopping it that may not be obvious to others without the mandate of utility. When all that matters is stopping it, there is no right or wrong, no conservative or liberal, moral or immoral. There is simply true or untrue. What is true is useful. What is untrue is not.

What is true is that the only people at fault in an attack are those that planned, enabled or carried it out. What is also true is that assigning fault in my old life was someone else’s job. Fault is a matter of justice. And justice for those willing to die or martyr themselves simply isn’t in play. And so deterrence through consequence, which is useful in other activities, is a tool that has no purpose in terrorism.

My task was to establish cause, find the pattern and disrupt it. What was true about the cause, at the highest level, was beyond the bounds of reasonable control. Politicized Islam, poverty, inequality, all things not easily solved. The type of political fodder that lasts generations. What was also true about the cause was more than any other consistent thing, a group that would revere the actions of the martyrs was clear and accessible to the martyrs. This was an act of heroism in their eyes. And heroism has no value in a vacuum.

What is true about the 330M Americans we live with is that some are disturbed or susceptible to the influences of extreme ideology or both. As it was for the populations in which I worked.

It is still illegal. It is still taboo. And the acts will still be openly condemned by the leaders of the group individuals seek to impress. But what is also true, is that someone contemplating an act can now believe that behind closed doors, they will be revered, even honored. That may have been less obvious to the average American before. Or there may have been more work required to access that sentiment. Today, it’s everywhere, real and imagined.

As a result, what is also true in America is now, more than before is that a group has made itself known and accessible to those willing to act out in violence against opponents of that group. The vilification of political enemies, the suggestion of criminal prosecution or event violent acts against them, from the highest levels of government, is a sort of permission giving activity. And though the intent of the leaders of that group is likely to simply encourage political energy, excitement and base unity, the causal outcome, to those of us that have seen politically motivated violence before, is clear as daylight.

I believe sincerely that President Trump is not trying to encourage any right wing violence. And I believe and am confident he will pursue justice against those who do. That may be naive. But President Trump has been operating in the public eye for a long time. Violence isn’t his mode of operation, despite other glaring flaws. In my experience violence is a habit learned early, and used often, or not at all.

What is also true is that the Trump brand of politics is not at fault for the violence, in a literal, legally accountable sense. But what is also true, for instances of extreme right wing violence, is that it is part of the cause.

Saying otherwise is political nonsense.

The Synagogue Shooter who’s name won’t ever show up on a page I publish reportedly hated Donald Trump because he wasn’t quite right wing crazy enough. This proves instead of disproves the pattern. That there is a group being signaled to and they feel more recognized and emboldened than they have in a long time in America.

What is unclear is what to do about it. It’s likely that there’s been enough light and oxygen for the group to sustain beyond the current administration. Likely sustained insistence of different political norms, years and decades not months, is required.

We’ve got our work cut out for us in order to get this genie back in the bottle, where it needs to stay.


9 thoughts on “On My Experience With Domestic Terror

  1. Jim Strader-Sasser – you didn’t get the point of the article I referenced. It wasn’t about 1 incident. It was about the fact that America was never great. And it is pretty obvious it never will be.


  2. There is an anecdotal and historical fact that he sought to imprison 4 young black men to life terms for committing crimes that they did not commit. He continued to pursue this injustice even after the courts had determined the young men’s innocence. Sentencing someone to life imprisonment may not be murder; yet, it is life-threatening and immoral. This incident is but one example of how our current occupant of the nation’s Executive Office values life and liberty.


  3. Sean, you said: “The Trump brand of politics is not at fault for the violence, in a literal, legally accountable sense.”

    INAL, but I’m pretty sure the law recognizes varying degrees of intent. Manslaughter isn’t murder in the first degree, 1st degree isn’t 3rd degree, etc. People can be held accountable for their actions, whether committed by negligence or premeditation or by malignant intent. Trump doesn’t get a free pass in these politically violent acts. He’s like a drunken air traffic controller – he might not have planned for or wanted anyone to be hurt, but he still sent one plane crashing into another. Of course I don’t expect any legitamate cases would ever move forward against him – but in the court of public opinion, I don’t see him walking away unblemished.


  4. I appreciate your comment. On first reading, I agreed that Sean let trump off the hook here. But after a second time through, he is calling trump at least partially accountable. I don’t think trump has a violent bone in his body. He’s the school yard bully who talks a big game and gets a thug to do his bidding. And when push comes to shove he’s hightailing it to the teacher to tattle on the other mean kids bullying him. But I do think he’s created a culture where these fanatics are trying to earn his approval. His consistent message of us vs them and angry diatribes is green lighting some who would otherwise stay hidden. And they are pretty confident that after, say, mailing 18 pipe bombs to liberal figures, they are living out trump’s wink and nod course of action. He’s probably horrified but surely even he can connect the dots between his angry rhetoric and hyperbolic pep rallies and their actions? Right? I think Sean lays more blame at trump’s feet after a second read thru. In any case, this is just a sad, sick state of affairs.


  5. Well, I disagree with you about our President not trying to incouage violence. He knows cause and effect. He stands up at infront of large groups of people and talks about punching someone in the face as well as stands beside another in his political party who has bodyslamed a journalist and tells the croud that the guy is his kind of man. I believe our President is a smart guy and he knows exactly what the outcome will be. I just don’t understand what end purpose he is trying to achieve by this behavior.


  6. I respect you, and so I look to understand your comments here about Donald Trump. My impressions are entirely opposite to yours. The other genie let out of the bottle is the violence in Donald Trump. His impulses are documented. If he had his way 4 innocent boys would have been removed from custody and lynched. If he had had the raving crowds attracted to his campaign rants, he easily would have had his way. To offer cover to anyone attacking protestors and relishing in the level of physical force against a reporter, seems part of his growing fantasy of his own capabilities for violence, “I could kill someone on the street and my supporters would not care,” was a fantasy balloon he launched over and over in various ways from the campaign proper to the neverending campaign rallies of today.

    Perhaps it’s all a grifter’s con on a gullible electorate and a media, itself hustling for ratings. But, American history of violence against the “other” and our entrenched systemic oppression, makes me unwilling to “wait and see” what Trump is all about. I don’t think our country, or the world, can afford to be naive about this president. Violence is running rampant in this administration—from endangering the health and welfare of the poor and middle class to dismantling regulations to protect the environment and the consumer, to undermining public education, and on and on. These self-serving policies are acts of violence against the American people. Some of us will feel the effects sooner than others, but all of us will feel it, if it is allowed to continue.

    Liked by 1 person

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