Trolling for Assassins

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump. Pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc Jr. (bottom). Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and mugshot.

As everyone knows by now, authorities have arrested 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc in South Florida in connection with pipe bombs sent to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, CNN, George Soros, and others. His van, plastered with pro-Trump/anti-Democrat stickers, was impounded by the FBI. Video shots of some of the stickers reveal Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein with crosshairs over their faces. Obama is pictured as a toddler on a tricycle — also with crosshairs. Social media images of Sayoc adorned with a red MAGA hat at a Trump rally in 2016 have now emerged. Early reports suggest that Sayoc has a criminal record. The initial psychological and criminal profile of the suspect is strikingly similar to those of the domestic terrorists introduced within the article below.  

The obvious question on everyone’s mind is what motivated the suspect to carry out these attempted acts of terror. The investigation is still ongoing, but it is natural to speculate whether he was in some way incited by far-right rhetoric. Perhaps even more disturbing is the possibility that the incitement could have originated with the president of the United States.

America is no stranger to home-grown, far-right extremists who have used violence — whether to draw attention to themselves, or to a particular cause, or as a way to vent their anger. In some cases, these motives are coupled with mental illness. Indeed, this dark phenomenon has roots in past decades, when the political names and faces were different, but the rage just as volatile. Only now, more and more Americans are wondering if these tensions are being ratcheted up to a new and dangerous level.

Stephen Singular is a New York Times bestselling author and investigative reporter, and is the author of Stolen Future: The Untold Story of the 2000 Election, just published by WhoWhatWhy with a foreword by Editor-in-Chief Russ Baker. In the following commentary, he explores the intersection of calculated political appeals, domestic terrorism, and mental instability, warning us of what may lie ahead.

Introduction by WhoWhatWhy Staff


As the pipe bombs started arriving at the addresses of prominent Americans during the week of October 22, setting off panic in the streets of New York and beyond, I couldn’t help thinking that all of this was so… predictable.

For more than three decades, I’d been writing about terrorism and terrorists and was often struck by how the people who actually carried out the violence were usually taking their cues from those far removed from the bloodshed. Hatred, dog whistling, subtle calls for removing certain obstacles or people were laid down by their perceived leaders like bread crumbs for them to follow — a phrase here or there, or the mention of someone’s name, or the repeated showing of the person’s face was all it took.

As every good advertising executive knows, repetition has a cumulative effect; it can bend the incredible into the credible. As all good terrorists know, there are people willing to kill and die for causes because they believe that’s what they’re being asked — or told — to do. Even if this isn’t true, one or two people can shake the most powerful nation on earth to its roots, or conjure up images of a new civil war.     

Target identification works.

That thought carried me back to one fall afternoon when I stood in front of northern Idaho’s Aryan Nations headquarters:  a compound surrounded by a chain-link fence, with armed guards, a rifle range, German shepherds, and Doberman pinschers. On a wooden shed were two words painted in red and blue letters: “Whites Only.” Some people called this God’s Country, but others referred to it as the “Heavenly Reich.”    

On a June evening in 1984, four men in the radical right movement known as “The Order” came to Denver and gunned down Alan Berg, a liberal, controversial radio talk show host, in his driveway. Bruce Pierce shot him 12 times in the face and torso with a .45-caliber MAC-10 machine pistol (and silencer).

The image of Berg lying dead beside his car became one of the iconic pictures of the violent rise of America’s extreme right. The Order had plans to kill some better-known Jewish targets, like TV producer Norman Lear and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but the Berg assassination was the starting point for a white power revolution intended to cleanse the US of Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, gays, feminists, liberal judges, and many others on their massive enemies list.

The Order turned racist rhetoric into action and left blood on the pavement in Denver.

The group, numbering fewer than 25 members, committed 240 crimes, including four other murders. They also created a template, almost an equation, for a certain kind of violence that would resonate deep into our nation’s future and bring us to the pipe bombs of today.

They’d been drawn to the Aryan Nations compound by the sermons of Richard Butler, who provided the “religious” justification for the deeds they eventually carried out.

In 1984, when The Order began turning Butler’s ideas into crimes, he immediately tried to distance himself from them. After all, he was just a country pastor, and what others did with his incendiary words didn’t concern him. Nor did it matter that his rhetoric had drawn in someone like Bruce Pierce, a high school dropout from Kentucky with a hair-trigger temper and major emotional problems.

Over the next few decades a name would emerge for what Butler had engaged in: “trolling for assassins.”

The Order, insignia

Insignia of The Order
Photo credit: Yorkshirian / Wikimedia

Researching The Order for a couple of years was highly unsettling — while delving into pockets of toxic hatred in America, I received several threats:

“If you write anything we don’t like, we’ll come looking for you.” This brought on more than a few nightmares about neo-Nazis kicking in my front door.

After the 1987 publication of Talked to Death my book about Alan Berg and those who’d killed him (followed two years later by the Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio) I vowed never to touch this subject again. Twenty years later, with the dynamics around the talk show host’s murder now much larger and more pervasive, I broke that vow.

When the phone rang in late May 2009, a friend from Kansas was calling with breaking news. Wichita’s George Tiller, the nation’s most prominent and controversial abortion doctor, had just been shot with a .22-caliber pistol in the lobby of his Reformation Lutheran Church.

Police and first responders were racing to the scene. Attempts to revive the physician were futile and the message sent out to emergency medical personnel was blunt: “Code Black.” Dr. Tiller was dead and his assassin, Scott Roeder, was on the run in a blue Ford. A few hours later, he was captured south of Kansas City. That afternoon President Barack Obama released a statement from the White House:

I was shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller, as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences over difficult issues, such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.

Within a few weeks of Dr. Tiller’s death, I was sitting in Wichita’s Sedgwick County Jail with Roeder, a hulking, balding man, who wore a red jumpsuit and had an overly friendly manner. We spoke on telephones and were separated by about 18 inches and a glass wall.

“Jail is hard, man,” he said. “The only thing worse than jail is being in a mental hospital. I was there once and I’m never going back.”

As a teenager, he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on mood-altering drugs, which he soon threw away. I brought this up and he aggressively denied ever being mentally ill. He seemed happy behind bars and openly bragged about shooting Dr. Tiller: “My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner. I stopped abortion in Wichita.”

Twenty-five years had passed between the assassination of Alan Berg and that of George Tiller. During that quarter century, something kept growing beneath our society, spreading and festering as it still is today.

Bruce Pierce, Berg’s murderer, had been supported by a tiny church and a couple dozen neo-Nazis. Scott Roeder had more support. His views on abortion were shared by many religious groups and prominent political leaders, but they were reinforced most strongly by a man who addressed millions of people each night from his television platform.

Right-wing violence did not arrive with the election of Donald Trump, but had been coming for decades. My 2011 book, The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion, addresses this profound shift in our culture.     

On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly built a reputation for attacking not merely those in the legal system with whom he disagreed, but on occasion the system itself — the rule of law and the very thin veneer of social agreements Americans live by.

Expressing his feelings was more important than due process, constitutional rights, courtroom evidence, the presumption of innocence, and even expert forensic analysis. He’d become the most successful voice on talk TV not in spite of this behavior, but precisely because he embraced it and encouraged viewers to do the same.

As a journalist and author with 35 years of experience and numerous published books about high-profile crimes, I found watching O’Reilly a haunting experience. No mere reporter trying to uncover the truth could compete with the spectacle unfolding on Fox News and elsewhere (countless others were doing what O’Reilly was, but he had the biggest megaphone).

Facts were out; heated opinions were in. In case after criminal case, across all media platforms, people were tried and convicted by talking heads who never heard a word of testimony.

Old-fashioned journalism appeared to be staggering toward its death. The new media megastars weren’t held accountable to any standards — they were entertainers, representing a new form of mass amusement, and their only job was to generate viewers and ad sales.

They stimulated audiences by demonizing individuals and, at times, our government or legal system. Their mindset, once isolated on the fringes, had become a hot commodity. Their glorification of the “us versus them” mentality — “I’m right and you’re dead wrong” — was perhaps the biggest change in the United States in my lifetime.

Some nights O’Reilly reached 3.5 million viewers, and when he grew tired of castigating our political or justice system, he took on the field of medicine and especially Dr. George Tiller, who’d become the preeminent national, if not international, resource for dealing with the most complex, difficult, and tragic circumstances surrounding a woman’s pregnancy — chromosomal deficiencies, genetic disorders, and other confounding realities.

By the time O’Reilly began launching his verbal assaults on the physician, seven doctors or their co-workers had already been murdered by anti-abortion activists. Dr. Tiller himself had had his women’s clinic bombed (1986) and been shot in both arms (1993).

In 2005, with the abortion battle against Dr. Tiller intensifying in Kansas, O’Reilly started referring to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer.”

One of his Fox-TV programs started with this line, “In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller, who will execute babies for $5,000 if the mother is depressed.”

The physician had “blood on his hands… Tiller destroys fetuses for just about any reason… He’s guilty of Nazi stuff… This is the kind of stuff that happened in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

On a 2006 radio program, O’Reilly said, “If I could get my hands on Tiller… Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech.”

In the spring of 2007, O’Reilly said on the air, “Tiller is executing fetuses in his Wichita clinic for $5,000. And records show he’ll do it for vague medical reasons. That is, he’ll kill the fetus, viable outside the womb, if the mother wants it dead. No danger to the mother’s life, no catastrophic damage if the woman delivers.”

The repetition continued. By early 2009, the talk show host and others had created enough momentum for charges to be brought against Dr. Tiller in Wichita. That March, he went on trial, and one of those watching him in the courtroom and anxiously awaiting the verdict was Scott Roeder.

As a native son of Kansas, I can assure you that it’s a very conservative state. Yet, after deliberating for less than 30 minutes, the jury acquitted Dr. Tiller on all 19 counts. Before leaving the courthouse that day, they slipped a note to the physician.

“In the note,” said Tiller’s trial attorney Dan Monnat, “they wanted him to know they were happy to do this for him, and they were proud that a safe, secure, and sanitary clinic existed for these operations, as opposed to the back alleys and motel rooms women had once used to get abortions.”

Commenting on Dr. Tiller’s resounding legal victory, O’Reilly said on the air:

“Now, we have bad news to report, that Tiller the baby killer out in Kansas — acquitted. Acquitted today of murdering babies. I wasn’t in the courtroom. I didn’t sit on the jury. But there’s got to be a special place in hell for this guy.”

On April 3, O’Reilly reiterated, “Tiller got acquitted in Kansas, Tiller the baby killer.”

Eight weeks later, on Saturday morning, May 30, Scott Roeder arose very early and at 5:45 AM drove to Kansas City’s Central Family Medicine clinic. As he stood in the parking lot and prepared to sabotage the clinic’s locks by gluing them shut, a female employee was inside watching him. When he approached the back door, she ran outside and gave chase. Lumbering to his car, he glanced over his shoulder and echoed O’Reilly’s words, calling her a “baby killer.”

The next day, he drove to Wichita and assassinated Dr. Tiller in his church.

On his first show after the murder, O’Reilly did exactly what Richard Butler had done following the murder of Alan Berg, declaring that “quick-thinking Americans” should condemn this action:  “Anarchy and vigilantism will assure the collapse of any society. Once the rule of law breaks down a country is finished.”

What concern was it of O’Reilly’s that Dr. Tiller’s assassin had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man and struggled with serious mental health issues throughout his life? The talk show host didn’t dwell on how many people exposed to inflammatory rhetoric were part of the nation’s at-risk population.

More than 40 million Americans, or nearly 20 percent of adults, suffer from some form of mental illness, like depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. While it’s both inaccurate and wrong to assume that any significant portion of these individuals is violent, it only takes a few, or just one, to unleash great destruction.

Trolling for Assassins

Decades of writing about homicide has taught me one thing above all: You don’t have to intend tragedy to help create it. You just need to be unaware of — or in denial about — the role you were playing and the effect you were having in the run-up to a disaster. Build it up long enough, ignore the warning signs, raise the stakes a step at a time, and eventually something goes irrevocably wrong. Then the rationalizing begins.

But still, O’Reilly was just an entertainer… not a politician or national leader.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, candidate Donald Trump made a point of playing on racial dynamics and xenophobia by talking about Mexican criminals entering the US, and about Muslim terrorists. He flirted with the politics of ethnic superiority, and his most visible ally in this was Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, which Bannon himself had once described as “the platform for the alt-right.” The alt-right could be loosely defined as those who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of “white nationalism” — a phrase meant to be more palatable than “white supremacy.”

The white supremacist Richard Spencer coined this new term in 2010 to describe a burgeoning movement centering on just this issue: white nationalism. The dog whistles had come out again and the template for the Berg and Tiller murders had already shown what can flow from statements at the top as they filter down into the general population, reaching people who are stable and people who are not.

In August 2017, seven months into the Trump presidency, ABC News and the Washington Post conducted a poll about America’s views on white nationalism and neo-Nazi beliefs. The results revealed that nine percent of the US population thought that it was acceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views. This amounted to about 22 million people. A slightly higher percentage, one in 10, said they supported the alt-right movement.

The explosion in these numbers was stunning. Years earlier, when I was writing Talked to Death, I never met anyone outside of the neo-Nazi/Aryan Nations/KKK camp who supported their beliefs. Maybe Steve Bannon’s ideas weren’t so marginal anymore. Maybe he and others in very visible positions had lent enough credence to them to stir up or unleash racial animus across the populace.

James A. Fields Jr. never met his father, who was killed in a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver before the boy was born. Another car wreck left his mother, Samantha Bloom, paralyzed below the waist. Growing up in northern Kentucky, James was a loner who developed a fascination with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

In high school, he wrote a three-page paper praising Nazi ideology and the armed forces commanded by the Fuhrer. Following graduation, he hoped to join the Army, but was rejected because of his psychiatric background. He suffered from schizophrenia and took antipsychotic drugs to try to manage his condition. As a youngster, Fields had engaged in violent abuse of his disabled mother. The police were summoned to their home four times while he was in the eighth and ninth grades. The 911 dispatcher on one of his mother’s calls wrote this in capital letters:

“13 YO MALE TOOK CALLER’S PHONE SMACKED CALLER IN THE HEAD. … IS THE SON. …PUT HIS HANDS OVER HER MOUTH. … ON MEDS TO CONTROL TEMPER. … STARTED BECAUSE CALLER TOLD HIM TO STOP PLAYING VIDEO GAMES TOLD HER THAT HE WOULD BEAT HER UP WAS RESTRAINING CALLER EARLIER SAYS SHE IS AFRAID OF HIM…”

After another outburst, Fields was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center.

By August 2017, as the Post and ABC were conducting their poll, the 20-year-old Fields was working as a security guard in Ohio and learned about an upcoming rally in Charlottesville, VA. Right-wing groups had organized the event to make a statement against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Fields drove to Virginia in his souped-up 2010 Dodge Challenger, with tinted windows and spiked wheels. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, he located the rally and steered his vehicle toward a pedestrian mall, ramming into another car. Then he aimed the Dodge at the crowd and sent bodies sprawling — killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old counter-protester, and injuring 19 others.

Prior to the attack, Fields had been hanging out with some self-proclaimed fascists at the protest, known as Vanguard America. After Heyer’s death, the group went out of its way to say that he wasn’t one of them.

President Trump wasn’t so quick to distance himself from the murder in Charlottesville. He lashed out at his critics, especially journalists covering the event, proclaiming that there were “very fine” people on both sides of the rally and that protesters and counter-protesters alike had engaged in violence.

The dog whistle and the megaphone now belonged to the loudest voice in the world: the president of the United States, who’s lately begun calling himself a “nationalist.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, the number of those organizations rose four percent from 2016 to 2017 (following Trump’s election), and neo-Nazi outfits in America increased from 99 to 121. In the past four years, the SPLC maintains, the alt-right and its loose band of associates has been connected to the murder of 43 Americans and to injuring 67 more. Ever since 9/11, our government has often been quicker to focus on or denounce international terrorism than the home-grown, right-wing kind.

Related: The Hate Group Next Door

“Words have consequences,” says Mark Potok, former editor-in-chief of the SPLC’s quarterly journal the Intelligence Report and an expert on the radical right:

The people who use inflammatory rhetoric that others then act upon with violence are not criminally responsible, but they are morally responsible. At SPLC, we found that a significant portion of the people who commit hate crimes don’t think of themselves as criminals. They respond to what they think their leaders are saying and see themselves as carrying out the wishes of important people in their community.

Who’s more important, in terms of public exposure, than the POTUS? Whose words carry more weight? All of which makes the attendant violence so… predictable.  

While digging into Alan Berg’s past, I met a Chicago lawyer named Frank Oliver, who told me something I never forgot: “Free speech isn’t free at all. It’s a very expensive commodity.”

The richness and beauty of our messy democracy provides protection for Americans to exercise our freedom of speech under the First Amendment. We have the free will to say what we want, but what about “free won’t” —  the conscious choice not to do or say certain things in the interest of the greater good? When does managing one’s feelings and monitoring one’s utterances become part of being a responsible citizen in contemporary America? When does emotional awareness become a piece of one’s political and social identity? We’ve seen enough to know that when leaders condone violence, even indirectly, violence often comes.

In the 30 years since Talked to Death was published, I’ve often felt that I was watching a national drama that cuts deeper than politics. That drama is now woven into the culture and has to do with a general loss of self-control and an unwillingness to cooperate with the larger principles we’ve inherited as Americans, which we claim to so devoutly believe in. Things like the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, respect for opinions not our own, and the understanding that the only people who can manage our feelings are ourselves. These are non-partisan issues and more subtle than voting for a Democrat or a Republican. They call for a new mindset and for us to utilize more self-awareness and more awareness of the effect we’re having on others, particularly if we’re reaching a mass audience — and especially if we know that some in that audience are unstable.

When pipe bombs showed up at the homes of, among others, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Robert De Niro, and at the CNN office in New York, I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised, as so many seemed to be. We’re naïve about what we’ve been doing as a country. The dynamics of terrorism are in place and the equation holds true. For a generation, we’ve been dividing and attacking and undermining ourselves from within.

Something’s gonna give.    


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from van (Talking Points Memo).

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2 responses to “Trolling for Assassins”

  1. PB says:

    The underlying financial system setting up these conditions of scarcity and redistribution need to be linked to this political strategy. The middle class of the US is being systematically undermined, restructured into a global low wage workforce, similar to the 1920s-30s, when these strategies were widely used before in Europe when a deep crisis hit the system.

    A new global trading bloc with China at the center is being built now with more money than the Marshall Plan. It links 63 countries with China (and China’s currency) at the center of the next wave of debt network relationships. It shifts away from the US as center of Bretton Woods debt system, with interest flowing to it from debtor nations all over in exchange for US made goods and technology. It puts the need to go into debt for Chinese made goods into the center of the new world economy. Where is the American former middle class in all of this? None of this is in the news here now, covered up as it is by manufactured Trump tensions.

    On top of this tension, shared by all of us, are the constructed conflicts to divide us up and distract us from a global econ restructuring implemented by a tiny global financial industry. The unchecked activities of this small group to reallocate credit to build a new economy with us in a new subservient role are completely unscrutizined as long as we focus on Trump generated tensions.

    There is an underlying reason these tensions have to be created and the politics have to be forced to the right. Let’s not lose sight of underlying root causes while we are directed by politicians and media that parrots them toward created tensions.

  2. Mark Segal says:

    Bob Dylan wrote a great song about these matters back in 1963 – “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. He sang it at the March on Washington. I would guess these tactics have been used throughout history.