The threat of domestic terrorism hits home

October 7, 2021 12:02 am

Members of the White supremacist group The Base at a “training camp” in August 2019. (U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland )

The just-revealed plot to kill Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, no matter how tentative or ephemeral, might well strike fear in anyone in the public sphere. It’s an indicator of the depths of hatred and the eagerness to commit violence among folks who don’t get their way at the ballot box.

It’s why domestic terrorists can never be taken lightly, even if their schemes are scatterbrained or poorly executed. 

Filler-Corn, a Fairfax County Democrat and the first female speaker in the centuries-old General Assembly, probably wasn’t in serious danger. The FBI had installed a closed-circuit TV camera and microphone at the Delaware apartment where the suspects were arrested early last year, and an undercover agent witnessed some of their conversations. 

The fact some people, however, considered killing Filler-Corn because of her party’s progressive initiatives, particularly on guns, should alarm all Virginians. It could lead to a tit-for-tat response, escalating wildly. Such events ultimately would undermine democracy. 

Federal prosecutors released details of the plot and other proposed crimes in a memo filed last week involving two members of The Base, a White supremacist group. News accounts say prosecutors want a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland to sentence Patrik Mathews and Brian Lemley Jr. to prison for 25 years each. They asked that the men be considered domestic terrorists for purposes of sentencing, which would carry a longer term behind bars.

Mathews is a former Canadian Armed Forces reservist, and Lemley is a U.S. Army veteran. They will be sentenced Oct. 28 after pleading guilty to gun charges. 

Authorities arrested the men days before a gun rights rally in the commonwealth in January 2020. The Justice Department said the two wanted to spark a race war in Richmond. The defendants discussed killing Black children and establishing a base camp in the Shenandoah Valley, according to transcripts. 

By assassinating Filler-Corn, either at her home or en route to work, they hoped to make her a martyr among gun-control advocates and accelerate their agenda, authorities said. The suspects hoped this would, in turn, cause gun-rights supporters to rally to their cause and become even more violent. 

Eventually, the two abandoned the plan to assassinate Filler-Corn, who’s also the first Jewish speaker of the House of Delegates. 

The speaker, by email, didn’t respond to my request for an interview. However, she said last week in a statement on Facebook: “This is extremely disturbing, and it should disturb all Americans. This pattern of using violence to intimidate the leaders and symbols of our democracy undermines the core values of our democracy itself.”


Yet, we know acts of violence have altered the course of U.S. history, be it the assassinations of politicians including Abraham Lincoln and brothers John and Robert Kennedy, or of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Presidential initiatives and populist struggles for equality then fell far short, or were even reversed. 

That’s why murder and upheaval are so attractive to people determined to use bloodshed. 

Law-enforcement officials are under constant strain to prevent such attacks. They were, for instance, able to shut down a plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had the quaint notion of enforcing regulations during the pandemic to keep people alive. One protest involved hundreds of opponents of her orders, some armed with rifles, who entered the state Capitol in Lansing. (In retrospect, it seemed an ominous dry run for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.)

Authorities arrested more than a dozen people they say plotted to kidnap Whitmer because she was a “tyrant.” There was even talk of putting her on trial – a Kangaroo Court-type setting if ever there was one. The odds of her survival would’ve been slim to none. 

Fourteen men face charges in federal and state courts in the plot against Whitmer. Some defense attorneys accuse the government of entrapment in the case.

I interviewed Ashley V. Reichelmann, associate director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech, about the defendants in the alleged plot against Filler-Corn. “I am not surprised,” she said by email, “but I am disheartened that individuals and groups are resorting to domestic terrorism in hopes that it will further their political aims.”

She said their race isn’t relevant in whether to identify them as domestic terrorists. “Their goal is to undermine democracy,” Reichelmann replied. 

“They feel the current society no longer provides them with the level of power they used to wield,” she continued, “and ultimately, their goal is to reinstate a hierarchy where White men have all the power, resources and wealth.”

That sounds like shades of America post-Reconstruction, when lynchings, other anti-Black violence, and Jim Crow laws were the norm in the South. 

Federal officials have noted the linkage between White supremacists and terror. FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking before a House committee in September 2020, said “racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from White supremacists, had made up a majority of domestic terrorism threats. 

Wray said the FBI averaged roughly 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations annually and had recorded about 120 arrests on domestic terrorism last year, The New York Times reported. But Wray made it clear that White supremacist and anti-government groups were the primary threats, the newspaper said.

Unless police and FBI agents can stay one step ahead of domestic terror threats, is anyone truly safe?

Reichelmann said law enforcement agencies are doing what they can. But communities and families need “to assist in identifying vulnerable individuals as well as having conversations with our loved ones long before they get to the point of committing domestic terrorism,” she added. “These conversations should not necessarily center upon the disagreement or extreme belief, but rather how they got there.”

That’s a start. Given the intense emotions raging across America, though, I fear it won’t be enough.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]