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'My Comrades Will Kill You': Pipe Bombs Sent in Year of Many Death Threats Against Politicians

The list of prominent national Democrats being sent packages containing bombs is growing. Threats of violence have also become more common against, and sometimes from, state and local candidates and public officials.

Explosive Devices
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, center, arrives outside Time Warner Center on Wednesday.
(AP/Kevin Hagen)
Over the course of her run for the Indiana House, Democrat Amie Neiling has been called "a socialist witch" and "a baby killer." But "partisan smears," she says, don't bother her.

What did disturb her was when her campaign received a text message threatening her life. In response to a message from the campaign last week reminding people about early voting, someone wrote back, "We are working on getting this liberal c**t assassinated." 

"When someone wants to kill me -- not just kill me, they used the word assassinated -- that took me aback," Neiling says. 

Political violence has dominated the news this week, with crude pipe bombs mailed to CNN's New York office and prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, the Clintons, former Vice President Joe Biden, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, liberal donor George Soros and actor Robert De Niro.

"The pipe bomb attacks unquestionably connect this moment in American politics to some of the darkest days of our history: the political lynchings of the postbellum South, the anarchist bombings of the teens and twenties, the violent reactions to civil rights protests and the assassinations of the 1960s," says Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. 

President Trump -- who has repeatedly made comments appearing to condone and even encourage violence against his critics -- called the attacks "despicable." "No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control," he said at a rally Wednesday night in Wisconsin, while also calling on the media to "stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.

As recently as last week, Trump praised a Montana congressman for having body-slammed a reporter.

Threats of violence have become commonplace in American politics. 

On Tuesday, New Jersey state Rep. Jay Webber, a Republican candidate for Congress, received a note calling him a liar and a "scumbag" and threatening him and his seven children.

"You BETTER hope that you don't win! Or else," the note read. "How many kids do you have...7? Unlucky 7. This is what we think of you. Time to get out of politics!"

The Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, former state Sen. Scott Wagner, drew national attention earlier this month with a campaign video in which he threatened Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “Gov. Wolf, let me tell you between now and Nov. 6, you better put a catcher’s mask on your face because I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes."

Wagner later apologized. 

Derek Partee, a black Republican volunteer in Mecklenburg County, N.C., was confronted Wednesday by a group of whites, including one wearing a holstered gun, who called him a "n****r" and a "piece of s**t." 

In August, Caddo Parish Commissioner Steven Jackson, a Democratic candidate for mayor in Shreveport, La., received a note calling him the n-word and threatening him with lynching if he did not end his campaign.  


Threats Against Women in Politics

In a year when record numbers of women are running for office, many have been harassed or become targets of sexist or threatening remarks. 

Democrat Kiah Morris, the only black women in the Vermont House, stepped down last month, citing her husband's health and "continued harassment."

“There was vandalism within our home," she told The New York Times. "We found there were swastikas painted on the trees in the woods near where we live. We had home invasions."

Deserae Morin, a Republican who is running for the Vermont House, received a letter earlier this month that called her a "c**t" and said, "We are hunting you. ... Socialism is here, open season for Republican death in Vermont."

The letter continued: "My comrades will kill you and the Constitution. First, we will rape you for days. You will scream and know that agonizing horror."

It was composed of cut-out letters, like a ransom note in an old movie. Morin said some of the letters had been cut out from her own business cards.

"I'm very outspoken. I'm very well spoken. I'm a real threat to socialism, and now socialism is a real threat to me," Morin said on WCAX. 

Christine Hallquist, the Vermont Democrat who is the nation's first transgender nominee for governor, has received numerous death threats.

"It’s kind of a natural outcome of our divided country," she said in August.

Such threats have typically been condemned by the opponents of those targeted. Vermont GOP Gov. Phil Scott, for example, said in response to the threats against Hallquist, "We must -- as a society -- do better to combat anger and violence."

In the case of Steve Scalise, the Republican whip in the U.S. House who was badly injured in a shooting during a congressional baseball practice last year, political violence is more than a threat. The shooter had volunteered for Bernie Sanders' Democratic presidential campaign and had described Trump as a traitor. Scalise denounced this week's attempted bombings.

"To repeat what I’ve been compelled to say far too often, violence and terror have no place in our politics or anywhere else in our society," Scalise wrote in a column for Fox News. "Having experienced the effects of political violence firsthand, I am committed to speaking out against it every time it rears its ugly head." 

Most of the recent threats against politicians are under investigation by law enforcement. But it's fair to assume that their motivations are usually to intimidate and silence speech.  

John Pitney, author of The Art of Political Warfare, a book about the similarities between politics and war, points out that the word campaign itself is a military metaphor. But open discussion of violence, he says, is crossing the line -- and avoidable.

Kousser, the political scientist, agrees.

"Leaders and voters can advance strong, even radical views, and use emotional rhetoric to advance them without threatening the order and freedom of a society," he says. "But when leaders talk about using violence to reach political goals, endorse violence or defend those who have committed violent acts in the political sphere, pipe bombs are the unsurprising consequence."

When Neiling, the House candidate in Indiana, called the police about the threatening text message, she says their advice was to take cover by locking her doors, closing her window blinds and not going outside. Not exactly helpful advice for someone running for office. Most candidates spend the bulk of their time knocking on doors or holding public events. And technology, she points out, has made it easier for people to follow through with threats.

"If this person is serious, with a little bit of Google-searching, it's not hard to find me or what my children look like or what school I teach in," Neiling says. "If someone actually wanted to do harm to me or my family or students in my class, it wouldn't be hard to do."


Political Reaction to the Pipe Bombs

News of the bomb packages quickly turned into yet another exercise in partisan recrimination. Some Democrats accused Republicans of acting in bad faith after having used threatening language themselves. A few prominent conservatives called into question the veracity of the bomb scares, describing the situation as a "liberal hoax" designed to help Democrats in the midterm elections.

"It's a high probability that the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats ... and to get our minds off the hordes of illegal aliens approaching our southern border," declared conservative radio host Michael Savage. 

"The political reaction was totally predictable, even if we still don't know anything about the perpetrator," says Pitney, who is also a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "A lot of Republicans and Democrats see each other as a dangerous enemy. Events like this are our Rorschach test. People see in it what they want to see." 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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