Terrorists to the left of me, terrorists to the right

I suppose it was inevitable.  An armed attack on Republicans at a baseball practice in Virginia wounded the House majority whip and several others appears to have been carried out by a leftist terrorist.  66-year old James Thomas Hodgkinson, a former house inspector from Illinois, was apparently distraught at the election of Donald Trump as president and traveled to the national capital area to protest.  This ‘normal guy’ was a big Bernie Saunders fan, at least according to his FaceBook postings, and was killed by Capitol Police, two of whom were wounded, after he had opened up fire with an automatic weapon.

Some may have a hard time calling this an act of terrorism, preferring to label it yet another mass shooting in a nation where a firearms incident involving multiple deaths or injuries is a daily occurrence.  That hesitation would be unwarranted.  Terrorism is serious violence aimed at non-combatants for some ideological purpose.  While details are still sketchy here I am confident that all three conditions are met: it was an act of serious violence, the targets were non-combatants and there are clear signs that the attacker was politically motivated.  Check, check and check.

In the bigger picture I am afraid for my American friends and former colleagues right now.  The whole country seems to be embroiled in a cauldron of hate.  Hate on the right, fed in part by an administration led by a man who, in my humble opinion, is not only singularly unqualified for the highest office in the land but willingly (and often) feeds hate-filled trolls with conspiracy theories and intolerance.  Hate on the left, with those who are vehemently opposed to this president and come up on a daily basis with ideas on how to get rid of him, most of which are legal – ish, but some not so.

The US strikes me as a land where people are talking past each other – or not talking to anyone but likeminded fellow travelers – rather than with others.  Positions are getting harder and more entrenched and this does bodes ill.  Sure, hatred has been part of the American landscape for centuries, but does it not seem a little more dangerous now?  Social media and increasingly narrow interest groups breed ever more intolerance.  This will not end well.

What is important to contexualise about what happened today is that while the data show without any doubt that the single greatest security threat to the US comes from the far right – neo-Nazis, white supremacists, militias – and not Islamists or lefties, hate is hate.  Terrorism is terrorism.  It would also compound the tragedy if this event were to lead to retributive violence.

Americans pride themselves on their First Amendment, the right to freedom of speech.  They certainly allow, and jealously protect through the constitution, things that few other countries do.  We can debate – and I have on several occasions – whether too much hate is out there (I happen to think so).  And we all acknowledge that regulating and policing what people say and post is next to impossible.  But that does not mean we have to accept some of the absolutely sickening garbage that is out there, like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ disgusting lie that the Sandy Hook massacres were fake.  What possible purpose does this crap serve and what civilised society allows it to be propagated?

I fear more violence will be carried out, on both sides of the hate ledger.  I also hope my US friends can see a way to take those who spread hate to task, all in keeping with the First Amendment.  Hate leads to violence in many cases and innocent people bear the cost.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those wounded in Alexandria, Virginia today.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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