The Growing Threat of American Political Violence

The Growing Threat of American Political Violence

On August 15, 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins II walked into the Washington, D.C., office of the Family Research Council with fifteen Chick-fil-A sandwiches, fifty rounds of ammunition, and a semi-automatic pistol. Corkins’s goal was to shoot as many employees of the conservative Christian organization as possible and then smear the sandwiches on their faces as they died. Corkins, a twenty-eight-year-old man from suburban Virginia who had volunteered at a local L.G.B.T.Q. community center, intended the murders to be a political statement. He supported gay marriage; the owners of the restaurant chain and the leaders of the Family Research Council opposed it—the organization further maintains that homosexuality is “harmful to the persons who engage in it” and “to society at large.” When Corkins arrived at the office, he wounded an unarmed building manager, who managed to wrestle him to the ground and disarm him, before anyone else was hurt. Corkins had planned to go to another conservative group later that day and carry out a second mass killing.

The F.B.I. case agent assigned to the shooting was Tom O’Connor, a specialist in investigating violent extremist groups, from the Aryan Nations to Al Qaeda. In his view, Corkins’s act fit the legal definition of domestic terrorism as established by Congress in the Patriot Act, following the 9/11 attacks: a violent crime intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to “influence the policy of a government.” But the new federal law did not specifically designate domestic terrorism a federal crime, and included no penalty. So Corkins became the first person to be charged with committing an armed act of terrorism under a District of Columbia law that had also been passed in response to 9/11. He expressed remorse, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.