Bergen and Sterman: Wednesday's shootings are possible act of leftist terrorism
In the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing terrorism was a common occurrence in the United States
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.” David Sterman is a policy analyst at New America’s International Security Program.
On Wednesday morning, a gunman attacked congressional Republicans practicing baseball, injuring five people including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The man identified as the shooter, 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson III, was taken into custody and later died.
While the incident remains under investigation, a review of Facebook pages belonging to Hodgkinson show he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders during the election and was fervently opposed to President Donald Trump. One Facebook post read: “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” Sanders confirmed that Hodgkinson had volunteered for his presidential campaign and, in no uncertain terms, condemned his violent acts.
Two Republican congressmen who were at the baseball practice, Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, also said that a man who looked like the shooter had asked them before the shooting if the players were Republicans or Democrats. Duncan replied they were Republicans.
Hodgkinson’s political leanings, his potential targeting of GOP victims and the symbolic importance of those victims raises the very strong possibility the shooting was an act of leftist terrorism.
Hodgkinson’s attack appears to fit the commonly accepted definition of terrorism, which is politically motivated violence against civilians by an entity other than a state, and once again reminds us that terrorism is the province of no single ideology.
In this age of political polarization, the United States must be prepared for violence from the left, the right, jihadists, and also those who subscribe to hard-to-categorize conspiracy theories. One such recent example of conspiracy-inspired violence occurred not far from Alexandria, when a man armed with a rifle fired shots inside a Washington DC pizza joint, while he was there to “investigate” an Internet-fueled hoax that the restaurant was a front for a child sex ring organized by Democratic Party officials.
While less prevalent in the national consciousness today, in the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing terrorism was a common occurrence in the United States, with many attacks perpetrated by radical groups such as the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and other smaller, less-well-known groups. The 1960s and 1970s were also a time of great political polarization given the protests around the Vietnam War and the intensification of the civil rights movement.
The Weather Underground was an anti-Vietnam War organization that targeted the Pentagon, the US Capitol and banks. The group claimed credit for 25 bombings in 1975 alone, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.
Anti-war militants also carried out major bombings at City Hall in Portland, Oregon, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while the Black Panthers mounted 24 bombings, hijackings and other assaults.
Since the 1970s, left wing terrorism has largely declined, with the exception of some more extreme animal rights groups and eco-terrorists. But these groups have largely targeted property rather than aiming to conduct lethal attacks.
In addition, there have been occasional instances of politically motivated violence from the left, including a 2013 shooting at the conservative Family Research Council motivated in part by its opposition to same-sex marriage. Fortunately no one was killed.
The necessary comparison of incidents of far-left and far-right terrorism raises important questions about political polarization and radical violence. Since 9/11, according to data collected by New America, far-right terrorists have conducted a much higher number of lethal attacks in the United States than leftist terrorists, killing a total of 53 people.
But in the past two years, amid the polarization of the election campaign and of Trump’s election victory, political violence seems to again be emerging on the left.
On July 7, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson shot and killed five police officers at the conclusion of a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. Johnson was not connected to the protest, but his Facebook page revealed an interest in radical black groups like the New Black Panther Party, and the Dallas police chief said, “The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Two months ago, on April 18, Kori Ali Muhammad, a 39-year-old African-American man, was arrested and charged with killing three people in a shooting in Fresno, California. Police said they believed race was a factor in the murders and Muhammad’s social media presence included Black Nationalist posts. Muhammad’s father said his son believed he was part of a war between whites and blacks and that “a battle was about to take place.”
Although these two attacks motivated by black nationalist ideology share little in common with the politics of Hodgkinson, the three of them together summon echoes of the past, when the United States experienced domestic terrorism at the hands of leftists and black nationalists.