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What motivated the mail bomb suspect?

Now that a Florida man has been arrested and charged in the series of mail bombs over the past week, we turn to considering his motives. What do we know about the relationship between ideological extremism and violent behavior? And how does social media play in? Judy Woodruff talks with Mary McCord, former acting assistant attorney general, and J.M. Berger, author of "Extremism,” for analysis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We take a deeper look at what more is known about the suspected pipe bomber and the state of the investigation with Mary McCord. She helped lead the Department of Justice National Security Division during the Obama administration. It focuses on terrorism and other significant national security threats. She's now a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.

    And J.M. Berger, he has written extensively about political violence. His latest book, "Extremism," was recently published by MIT Press. He's also a research fellow at VOX-Pol. That's a European Union academic initiative to study online extremism.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Mary McCord, to you first.

    What's your reaction about what we know so far about this man, the suspect?

  • Mary McCord:

    Well, it does seem like it was extremely good and fast work by the FBI and all the other local and state law enforcement that assisted.

    They certainly did get lucky by the fact that the suspect left a fingerprint on one of the packages and is somebody known to law enforcement for whom his fingerprint was in the database. So, congratulations, of course, to all the incredible law enforcement for solving this so rapidly.

    But, of course, we don't know — the investigation will go on to make sure that there are no others involved, no other bombs out there already in the stream of mail or in delivery services, and that no one else that this suspect is working with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    J.M. Berger, it is the case that this investigation continues. We are looking at one person so far. We don't know if he's the only one involved.

    But looking at his portrait — there's been some description of him as a loner, someone who he did have some arrest record, most of it minor offenses. But what do you make of him, the person who's coming through here?

  • J.M. Berger:

    Well, he's definitely somebody who, we know from his criminal record, had a past history of violence.

    And when we see acts that are terrorist in nature, as this attack is, we often see somebody who has that kind background. But we see from his social media posts — we have seen three of his accounts so far — they're all very right-wing-oriented. They're very pro-President Trump.

    And they're very threatening. So he engaged with and threatened a lot of people who are Democrats or on the left in some way or in Hollywood, kind of celebrity figures.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And staying with you, J.M. Berger, does that make it — in your mind, does that make it easier to identify him, to find him, ultimately, whether they decide whether he's guilty or not?

  • J.M. Berger:

    Well, I think, certainly the fingerprints are — and the DNA are the conclusive evidence to find him quickly.

    There's a lot of this kind of content online. Really, we have a major problem on social media platforms with harassing and potentially violent content. So to try and approach it from searching the social media side of things is really a needle in a haystack kind of problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mary McCord, how do you connect the dots here, again, based on what we have seen of him and his strong interest, apparent strong interest in politics, much of it, of course, pro-President Trump?

    How does that — what does it add up to at this point for you?

  • Mary McCord:

    Well, what it adds up to, really, is this is a case, I think, that has every indication of being a case of domestic terrorism.

    And we don't have in the federal criminal code a crime of domestic terrorism by that name. There are other crimes. And I would be interested to see as the investigation proceeds and as the prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office and the Department of Justice take this to the grand jury whether they might not add some other charges, charges such as use of a weapon of mass destruction, which is a terrorism offense.

    It's not labeled domestic terrorism, but it is a terrorism offense. So I think that this is a classic case where, if we had a federal crime of domestic terrorism, this kind of — this kind of a case would be fitting to consider for indictment under that type of a charge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    J.M. Berger, as we said, your specialty, you have done so much work looking at extremism.

    Does the current hyper-divided political environment in the United States, does it tend to that, in a situation like this, exacerbate people's tendencies who may have already had a tendency to be on the extremist end of the spectrum?

  • J.M. Berger:

    I think it does.

    We have a lot of research on this subject of how rhetoric affects behavior. And some of it is inconclusive as far as whether extremist — just exposure to extremist rhetoric, without exposure to a social network, make somebody more prone to be violent.

    But what we do know is that extremist rhetoric and extremist ideologies shape violence. So — and you can see that very clearly in this case, that this man's actions were shaped by what President Trump has said about his opponents. The selection of his targets doesn't really lend itself to a lot of other explanations.

    He was — we can see in the social media he was very invested in conspiracy theories, and that may have also helped shape the action that he took. But those conspiracy theories are very much in synch with the president's rhetoric.

    So I think that there is a legitimate issue that we should be talking about here in terms of how the current political environment is affecting people's behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mary McCord, what about that, the connection between the political environment, the broader political environment, which is very divided at this moment as we approach the midterm elections, and the tendency on the part of some people to be prepared to take extreme action like this?

  • Mary McCord:

    Well, I would agree with a lot of what J. has said.

    I mean, we have seen this when — in my background in national security. We see this in international terrorism as well. We see an extremist viewpoint and then a radicalization toward violence that starts with somebody having certain types of ideologies.

    And as they progress toward extremism, sometimes, not always, they will radicalize toward violence. And now we're seeing that, I think, here with some of the extremism in the United States right now.

    I happen to be doing this interview from Charlottesville, where just a little over a year ago, we had white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching — marching through the streets and engaging in violence. And so that — their activity has been not condemned maybe as forcefully as it should have been by some of our leaders.

    And I think what we're seeing potentially with this case is, again, someone who has espoused certain views, political views, and has a discomfort or is very unhappy with those who criticize the current president and criticize his policies, and this person has taken his extremism to the next level. And he has really radicalized and seems to, by his actions, want to intimidate or coerce people into not speaking out and exercising, frankly, their right to free speech.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    J.M. Berger, very quickly, what's your main question that you have at this point about this case?

  • J.M. Berger:

    What we will be looking for is to find out if he followed a specific kind of ideology.

    So, the social media accounts we have seen so far are very undirected. There's not a clear indication that he was involved in a particular brand of extremism, and whether he was involved in an extremist community.

    I think it's likely that we will find that he has other social media accounts that are not under his name and not as easy to find. And once we see those, we will have a better sense of really what motivated him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    J.M. Berger, Mary McCord, we thank you both.

  • J.M. Berger:

    Thank you.

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