Who Is a Domestic Terrorist?

On August 15, 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins II walked into the Washington, D.C., office of the Family Research Council with fifteen Chick-fil-A sandwiches, fifty rounds of ammunition, and a semi-automatic pistol. Corkins’s goal was to shoot as many employees of the conservative Christian organization as possible and then smear the sandwiches on their faces as they died. Corkins, a twenty-eight-year-old man from suburban Virginia who had volunteered at a local L.G.B.T.Q. community center, intended the murders to be a political statement. He supported gay marriage; the owners of the restaurant chain and the leaders of the Family Research Council opposed it—the organization further maintains that homosexuality is “harmful to the persons who engage in it” and “to society at large.” When Corkins arrived at the office, he wounded an unarmed building manager, who managed to wrestle him to the ground and disarm him, before anyone else was hurt. Corkins had planned to go to another conservative group later that day and carry out a second mass killing.

The F.B.I. case agent assigned to the shooting was Tom O’Connor, a specialist in investigating violent extremist groups, from the Aryan Nations to Al Qaeda. In his view, Corkins’s act fit the legal definition of domestic terrorism as established by Congress in the Patriot Act, following the 9/11 attacks: a violent crime intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to “influence the policy of a government.” But the new federal law did not specifically designate domestic terrorism a federal crime, and included no penalty. So Corkins became the first person to be charged with committing an armed act of terrorism under a District of Columbia law that had also been passed in response to 9/11. He expressed remorse, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

O’Connor, who was the vice-president of the F.B.I. Agents Association at the time, began unsuccessfully lobbying members of Congress to enact a law that would designate acts of domestic terrorism a federal crime. To this day, he supports the idea. O’Connor contends that such a measure would give law-enforcement officials additional tools and resources to combat the intentional use of violence to achieve political goals. He also believes that it would further enshrine and encourage peaceful, First Amendment-protected political activity. “We should effect change by protests—nonviolent protests—and by voting,” O’Connor told me. “Those are the two ways.”

Since the attacks in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and other cities, the debate over how to respond to domestic terrorism has intensified. But both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, remain leery of giving federal law-enforcement officials the enormous political power that comes with being able to declare an individual a “terrorist.” They cite the Bureau’s history of illegally surveilling, harassing, and profiling political, racial, and religious groups, from Black civil-rights organizations to the John Birch Society to Muslim Americans. Opponents also point out that some protest groups on the left and the right, such as Greenpeace and organizations that oppose abortion, intentionally break the law during demonstrations. Critics say that making domestic terrorism a federal crime is both unnecessary and a recipe for suppressing dissent.

O’Connor argues that failing to confront the rising number of perpetrators of political violence carries a different set of risks. He says that the coronavirus pandemic, mass layoffs, and apocalyptic campaign rhetoric have created the greatest potential for political violence in the United States that he has seen in twenty-three years of investigating extremism. Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who also supports a new domestic-terrorism measure, called the current election season “hugely dangerous,” adding, “I just don’t think we should throw up our hands and say we can’t trust law enforcement.”

Last week, federal and state officials charged thirteen men with plotting to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, and accused them of surveilling her vacation home, conducting tactical training, and discussing an attack on the state capitol. On Tuesday, reports emerged that the group also considered kidnapping Virginia’s Governor, Ralph Northam. O’Connor, who retired from the Bureau last year, said that the size and the scope of the scheme shocked and worried him. “Usually, when you have an event that involves extremist ideology, it’s one or two people,” he said. “They were going to rallies and asking others to join.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I, announced that the Bureau had more than a thousand investigations into violent extremism under way in all fifty states. In testimony to Congress in September, he warned that the perception of government overreach, racism, and other dynamics fuelling domestic violent extremism—D.V.E., in Bureau parlance—“remain constant.” He noted, “More deaths were caused by D.V.E.s than international terrorists in recent years. In fact, 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995.” (Wray was referring to an attack on a federal building that killed a hundred and sixty-eight people, one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism in American history.)

A quarter century later, O’Connor and other experts contend that rampant online conspiracy theories are “adding gasoline to the radicalization process.” O’Connor, who said he strives to be nonpartisan, accused both political parties of inaction: “One side wants the white supremacists to be prosecuted, and the other side wants Antifa to be prosecuted. It should not matter what the person looks like when they commit an act that looks like domestic terrorism.” He added that individuals on either side of the ideological spectrum have engaged in political violence, but that, statistically, right-wing extremist attacks have been far more lethal. “Leftists have caused more property damage, but, if you look at the death rate, it’s not even close,” he said. He described the Michigan plot as textbook domestic terrorism. “It’s extremist violence based on anti-government political views. It’s political violence,” he said. “Call it what it is.”

Matthew Feldman, a professor at the University of York who studies right-wing extremism, said that November 3rd has all the hallmarks of being a potential “trigger moment.” He told me that polarization is growing on both sides, but he, too, believes that the far right represents a more lethal threat. “At the fringes on the right, a narrative is building that the left is stealing the election,” he said, warning that extremists may decide that “their way of life” will disappear “if they don’t take action.” But, he added, would-be attackers often await a signal from leaders that violence is acceptable. “Scholars have long talked about a kind of license that comes from the top,” Feldman told me. “One of the surest signs of these trigger events is an increasingly apocalyptic tone. And, of course, the biggest culprit has been Donald Trump.”

As O’Connor put it, “In my thirty-five years in law enforcement, I’ve not seen the country as divided as it is today. It’s amazing times. It’s the perfect storm.” This week, a federal law-enforcement official acknowledged the danger and told me that authorities were “looking out for” individuals planning or engaging in violence. “We’ll take appropriate action,” he said. The greatest responsibility, though, lies with the President and other elected leaders. Exhibiting restraint in the weeks ahead will produce more political benefit for themselves, and for the public, than further talk of Armageddon.


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