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.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson of Silver Spring, Maryland, was arrested nearly a week ago on weapons and drug charges by authorities who said he was planning to commit mass murder. They said Hasson had a hit list, which included Democratic politicians and anchors at CNN and MSNBC.
Hasson had assembled a small arsenal of 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, according to a court filing by federal prosecutors.
A month before his arrest, Hasson performed Google searches such as “what if trump illegally impeached,” the court documents say.
Hasson was influenced by Anders Breivik, a neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, according to the court filing. Breivik had written a manifesto about the necessity of targeting political and media leaders. Hasson made a list of prominent media personalities he seemed to be planning to target, including Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo of CNN and Joe Scarborough and Chris Hayes of MSNBC, authorities said.
The Hasson case is the latest reminder of the risks posed by lone terrorists, whose anger can be directed at journalists and politicians. Often, such terrorists have unresolved grievances in their lives and then find an ideology that allows them to commit violence, according to J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who researches lone terrorists.
Those terrorists can be inspired by any number of things, but inflated political rhetoric is a potential contributing factor.
Take the case of Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. Bowers appears to have been inspired by rhetoric about migrant caravans in Mexico heading toward the United States being “invaders.” Bowers repeatedly called them “invaders” when he posted to the website, Gab, and blamed Jewish organizations for purportedly enabling these migrants.
In a similar vein, Hasson wrote – in a draft email from 2017 found in his deleted file, authorities said – that “Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence.”
Hasson’s case may suggest that President Donald Trump’s repeatedly calling the media “the enemy of the people” can have consequences.
Earlier this month, a Trump supporter at a rally in El Paso, Texas, attacked a BBC cameraman. Trump routinely denounces the media covering his rallies.
And in October explosive devices were mailed to leaders of the Democratic Party and to CNN. Cesar Sayoc, a Trump supporter and DJ living out of his van in Florida, was identified as the suspect in the case.
Most presidents haven’t loved their press converge, but Trump’s demonization of the media simply doing their jobs is at another level of magnitude than previous US leaders.
The architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, retired Adm. William McRaven, had it right when he said that “the President’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime. When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.”
Trump’s latest “enemy of the people” is The New York Times for an article it published this week about Trump’s attempts to influence investigations into, among other things, payoffs to women who claim to have had sex with him.
Trump resorts to the slogan “fake news” and the Stalinist appellation “enemy of the people” when he doesn’t like the stories that are written about him. Yet he rarely engages on the substance of these stories. Rather he tries to create a miasma of doubt around what the proper role of the press is.
Trump’s verbal assaults on the media are just one more example of his assaults on the institutions of American life, such as the FBI and the Department of Justice.
This will all come to a head in the coming weeks as special counsel Robert Mueller prepares to deliver his final report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Despite the likely efforts of the Trump administration to bury the report, since we live in an open society, it will likely eventually leak.
Should that happen, the press should be prepared for a Vesuvian eruption from Trump about how the media are the enemy of the people, intent on promoting fake news.