Experts unsure if political polarization will lead to Election Day violence
Experts are split over whether the revelation this week of a bizarre Election Day plot to detonate a bomb on the National Mall presages a bigger threat of violence ahead of November’s midterm vote.
The arrest of Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappen, New York, comes as the tone of American politics has taken an ominous turn in recent months, with politicians increasingly being confronted in public and facing death threats sent to their homes or offices.
Federal authorities said Mr. Rosenfeld was assembling a 200-pound bomb to blow up in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to an arcane political theory known as sortition, in which political officials are randomly selected from a pool of qualified applicants.
“Things are very polarized right now and police should be more alert with these mid-term elections and prepared to handle every end of the spectrum in terms of a possible disruption,” said John Eterno, a former New York City police captain who now teaches criminal justice at Molloy College. “Both a very minor electioneering violation or something more major is possible given the emotional reaction we are seeing from both sides.”
But James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said politically motivated violence can happen anytime, and vigilance shouldn’t be limited to Election Day.
“You can’t predict what a mentally unbalanced person will do,” he said. “They don’t operate on our calendar, they operate on their own calendar, and the idea that one day is safer than another is fallacious.”
Police departments in large cities and federal law enforcement contacted by The Washington Times were mum on whether they will beef up their Election Day staffing, fearing an attack similar to the one planned by Mr. Rosenfeld.
Mr. Eterno said police departments usually increase their presence on Election Day, with officers often stationed inside or near polling places. He said they are looking out for possible terror events, but also minor election violations such as an individual campaigning too close a polling place.
There have been election-related threats and attacks in recent decades, with intelligence officers warning local authorities in New York, Texas and Virginia about possible al Qaeda attacks on the day before the 2016 presidential election.
In 2004, Osama bin Laden released a video days before the presidential election, and the USS Cole bombing happened three weeks before George W. Bush and Al Gore faced off in 2000.
Internationally, a terrorist cell linked to al Qaeda killed 193 people in Madrid three days before Spain’s general election in 2004. The bombing of commuter rail trains cost Spain’s governing Popular Party the election after they insisted another terrorist group was responsible.
Experts viewed the election defeat as a surprise upset by Spain’s Socialist party.
Daniel Benjamin at the Brookings Institution argued a decade ago that elections are attractive targets because they are big events.
“These are seam moments, the points of inflection in history and the terrorists want to demonstrate that they are central players in determining outcomes,” Mr. Benjamin wrote in a 2008 essay.
Mr. Rosenfeld’s plot proves it doesn’t take a large overseas organization to sow chaos on Election Day.
Authorities say he ordered black powder online and began assembling a bomb in his basement.
Most of the recent threats of political violence seem to follow the lone wolf pattern.
On Wednesday, a New Jersey man was convicted of threatening to kill Rep. Frank LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican, and members of his staff. Joseph Brodie, 39, made the threats when the congressman’s chief of staff refused to arrange a meeting with the lawmaker to discuss Mr. Brodie’s complaints about the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In April, a Virginia man was arrested for repeatedly threatening Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican. Michael Christopher McGowan, is accused of threatening Mr. Goodlatte because of his questioning of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
All told, about 2,000 threatening incidents and communications were made against members of Congress last year, according to the House Sergeant at Arms office. That’s nearly double the 902 threatening incidents and communications in 2016.