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How Dangerous Is Divisive Political Rhetoric?


How do the words we say turn into real-life violence? Before a gunmen allegedly killed 11 people in a synagogue on Saturday, he's believed to have posted on social media. He picked up on the caravan, a group of migrants described as a threat by President Trump. He linked refugees to Jews, picking up on conspiracy theories spread on social media and elsewhere. He had his own history of anti-Semitic remarks and said that even President Trump was a front for the Jews.

There is also a social media history for the Florida suspect who allegedly mailed pipe bombs to politicians and media figures attacked by President Trump. There are photos of him at Trump rallies wearing a Make America Great Again hat and holding up a sign that said CNN sucks. After each attack, President Trump dismissed any link to his rhetoric and continued his attacks on the media.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think I've been toned down, you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up because as you know, the media's been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: John Cohen of Rutgers University is with us next. He's a counter-terrorism expert who served as a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Cohen, welcome back to the program.

JOHN COHEN: Hey, Steve. Thanks for having me on again.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you read what is known so far about these two suspects?

COHEN: Well, the two incidents of last week are a very stark illustration of the current threat environment we find ourselves in, which is really the convergence of two trends. Over the past five years, we've seen a steady increase in mass casualty attacks in the United States by disaffected, mentally unstable individuals who are prone to violence, who self-connect with some ideological or political cause and use that cause to motivate an act of violence.

At the same time - or what the newest element of this threat environment is, that we're also seeing that the hostile, tribal political rhetoric that's used all too often as a part of our normal political process is, in many respects, having the same impact on the same population of people that ISIS videos and other extremist material posted on social media. So, in a way, our political speech is now serving to motivate these same, disaffected, violence-prone individuals to conduct attacks.

INSKEEP: Granting that it's early - we'll keep learning more - did these two suspects seem in any way similar to the gunman who opened fire on a baseball game not long ago and shot Republican Congressman Steve Scalise?

COHEN: Yeah, absolutely. And they seem similar to the Sutherland Springs shooter and those that have committed other mass casualty attacks over the last several years. We've learned a lot about these attackers. We've discussed these past attacks together. These tend to be disaffected people looking for some sense of social connection, looking for some sense of life accomplishment. They believe their lives have been failures. They connect with a cause or former grievance. And that cause or grievance becomes the way that they're going to make their life, in their mind, credible. And then they commit the attack.

INSKEEP: What makes this an even more white-hot subject of political discussion, though, is that they do sweep up some form of political rhetoric. And we have a couple of people who swept up - in one case, anti-Semitic memes and a cause that has been embraced by President Trump. The other seemed to be something of a Trump fan. How exactly is someone's political rhetoric connected to an individual like this who, as you say, is probably disturbed to begin with?

COHEN: Well, what has caused law enforcement concern over the last two years is the way that our political rhetoric has become much more demonizing. You know, your opponent isn't just somebody you disagree with; it's somebody who's corrupt. It's evil. Problems such as immigration are not simply problems of resources and problems of policy. But the people who are coming here are treated as criminals.

I mean, just look at the discussion and the commentary coming from the administration, quite frankly, on the caravan. What is certainly a humanitarian crisis that will require resources to deal with, the way it's being described is - one could only picture a marauding horde of battle-axe-wielding individuals charging the border. So, you know, the mischaracterization of the threat is a big part of what feeds into the hostility of these attackers.

INSKEEP: Are we getting to the point, John Cohen, where domestic terrorism is as great or greater a threat than international terrorism?

COHEN: Yeah, so let me be really clear. The primary mass-casualty threat facing the U.S. are people who are here, who are disaffected, who attach to an ideological cause and commit attack based on that cause. It's not people coming from abroad.

INSKEEP: John Cohen of Rutgers University. Thanks for the insight, really appreciate it.

COHEN: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.