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Experts say many Americans see violence as an acceptable way to resolve differences


What led federal agents to shoot and kill a man in Provo, Utah? The agents were trying to arrest Craig Robertson, who was 75, and who had a history of making violent threats against President Biden and other public officials. Extremism experts say many Americans see violence as an acceptable means of resolving political differences. NPR's Lisa Hagen covers this. Hey there, Lisa.


INSKEEP: Let's start with the case at hand. What threats was Robertson accused of making?

HAGEN: Yeah. The FBI got a tip from a social media company about him posting with some really direct language about traveling to New York to fulfill a dream of, quote, "eradicating" Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. He filed the first criminal complaint against Donald Trump. The charging documents showed dozens of similar posts directed at a number of other public officials, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, the governor of California, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and, of course, the president.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about this, because, of course, they're public figures, and we have freedom of speech. You are broadly allowed to say terrible, terrible, terrible things about public officials. When does it cross the line into something illegal?

HAGEN: Yeah. When you're talking about specific targets, specific locations and you're showing access to the weapons you need to take out violent acts.

INSKEEP: Oh, as in this case, when someone says, I'm eager to go to New York to do this specific thing. How often are people saying things like this?

HAGEN: So I spoke with Seamus Hughes at the University of Nebraska's Counterterrorism Center. He's been tracking the number of federal arrests like this over threats to public officials in the last decade. He said in 2013, there were just over 30 of these arrests, and last year, there were 72. Here's Hughes.

SEAMUS HUGHES: But, you know, you also have to put this in context of how many cases they deal with. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of tips they get about threats. And many times, the FBI will knock on the door, say, what are you doing online? Knock it off. It's basically a diversion program. And those individuals will move on with their lives. The smaller subset, you have to bring up federal charges.

HAGEN: He says public threats are increasingly easy to make. We all have access to social media. Federal law enforcement is focusing more on domestic extremism. And he talks about something he called mood music, which is, you know, the general atmosphere created by partisan media, public leaders and online communities.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, is that mood music mainly coming from the political right, essentially Robertson's side of the political spectrum?

HAGEN: Yeah. Ominous rhetoric about the deep state and stolen elections is almost entirely coming from the right, as is most of the violence. I talked to Katherine Keneally with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and she points out also that within right-wing storylines, Republicans seen as disloyal are also villains, along with Democrats and liberals. She lives in Montana, and she worries the kind of rhetoric Robertson used has really shifted from the fringes of the internet to regular daily life.

KATHERINE KENEALLY: I can go out my front door or hear a conversation, and the things that he was posting online, I can hear at a bar, I can hear in line at my grocery store. It is not very uncommon by any means.

HAGEN: People hear over and over again that the government is coming for us and our freedoms, and there's no one person to blame for this kind of rhetoric. It's profitable. And in a country with free speech, it's legal.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lisa Hagen. Thanks so much.

HAGEN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lisa Hagen
Lisa Hagen is a reporter at NPR, covering conspiracism and the mainstreaming of extreme or unconventional beliefs. She's interested in how people form and maintain deeply held worldviews, and decide who to trust.