Wednesday’s shooting in Virginia that appeared to target Republican lawmakers highlights a trend that terrorism experts have been monitoring in recent months: the ramping up of violence committed by the left.
“This is something we’re very concerned about,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. “The violence is not indigenous to just one side of the political spectrum. While other entities are farther along, this emergent hard left has coalesced.
“And we can’t just ignore it.”
The attack, which occurred during a congressional baseball practice early Wednesday, critically wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in House leadership. Two Capitol Hill police officers and at least two others also were shot.
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The shooter, identified as James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois, died at a hospital, President Donald Trump said. The Belleville News-Democrat reported that Hodgkinson belonged to several anti-Republican groups on Facebook. Among them: “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans,” “Donald Trump is not my President” and “Terminate the Republican Party.”
Hodgkinson owned a home inspection business and had an arrest record in St. Clair County that included such offenses as damaging a motor vehicle, resisting a peace officer, eluding police, criminal damage to property and driving under the influence, according to the News-Democrat.
He also had volunteered on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The Vermont senator said on the Senate floor that he was “sickened by this despicable act.”
Levin said he’d been traveling across California, meeting with government officials and talking about the problem of increasing political violence.
“I was just in Sacramento meeting with the attorney general’s office on Monday,” he said. “In California alone, we have seen over 20 cases since December 2015 of violent public confrontations that revolve around political issues. We’re even seeing it at meetings involving Congress people.”
Increasingly, he said, the hard left has been involved.
“There’s been a sliver that has gone away from the kind of peaceful protests which really dominate the progressive left,” Levin said. “There’s now a splintering of a violent left which buys into the rhetoric of violence, public displays of violence and confrontations, and conspiracy theories.”
Social media, he said, has amplified the acceptance of violence.
“We even have academics saying that violence is justified as resistance,” he said. “We have become a tribalistic society where violence is now viewed as a form of political expression on all different sides.”
With violent acts coming from every direction, Levin said, it’s almost impossible to predict where the next threat will come from.
“We not only have to look at violent Salafist jihadists, which still represent a very prominent threat; we also have to look at far-right extremists and nationalists of all stripes, including black and white,” he said. “But now, there’s also the emergent hard left.”
Those on the far right were quick to point out that Wednesday’s attack appeared to have been committed by a left-wing extremist. They noted some of the posts on Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, including one on March 22 that said, “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
A thread about the shooting on Stormfront, a white nationalist online forum, had garnered hundreds of posts by the end of the day. Some wondered if the shooter saw himself as some sort of “patriot.”
“Libtards believe Trump is little short of the Anti-Christ and he has been demonized by the media 24/7,” said someone posting under the name Al Kelz. “A deluded mind could very easily come to such a deluded conclusion. After all, stupid is as stupid does.”
And Billy Roper, a former organizer for the neo-Nazi National Alliance, said in a blog post that “a Democratic Socialist Bernie supporter has fired what may someday be considered the first shots in Civil War II.”
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, described the shooting as “left-oriented terrorism.”
Pitcavage said he had conducted training sessions in Washington, D.C., last weekend for senior law enforcement executives from around the country. In addition to his regular presentations, he said, he spoke about the extremist movements that experts had been seeing in the post-Trump election environment.
“I warned that we’d seen increased activity from people on the left who are very angry about the Trump administration,” he said. “And I said, ‘There’s a real chance for increased violence coming from the left.’ But little did I know that my prediction would be confirmed so quickly and in such a shocking way.”
Pitcavage said that from what he’d examined so far, Hodgkinson’s views did not appear to be extreme left.
“There were no ties that I could see to any extreme left groups, and his sentiments as he expressed them were pretty well in the mainstream,” he said. “He hated Trump and he hated Republicans and he loved Bernie Sanders. But all that’s squarely within mainstream political beliefs.”
And that, Pitcavage said, raises serious concerns.
“One kind of expects violence coming from the furthest fringes of the political spectrum, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or religious,” he said. “But this guy was not on the far end of the left political spectrum, and yet he himself was somehow motivated to violence.
“So if things are so polarized now that people who don’t necessarily have a background of extremism can be motivated to extreme violence, that means there could be a lot more of it.”