The logic of terrorism


Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.


  1. says

    His mention of the terms “liberalist/globalist ideology” is chilling. In fact, having spent a lot of time monitoring the myriad Georgian ultra-nationalist social media pages that have sprouted up over the last two years, I have routinely come across those exact terms, which are frequently juxtaposed and/or augmented with pejoratives like “Soros”, “pederast” and “liberast” and are invariably situated among lines of angry text. Whatever real or perceived grievances these people harbor, they seem to share a similar world view. Sadly, those that espouse these views are not so small in number. Scary times we live in.

    • Pete Trumbore says

      Yes indeed. One of the things the prosecutors’ motion spends considerable time on, but which I didn’t mention in my post, is just how much Hasson took from Anders Brevik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist. Brevik wrote a 1500-page manifesto in which he laid out both the logic behind his attack as well as “practical guidance” about how to follow in his footsteps. Hasson apparently read this closely and carefully followed its advice. It will be interesting to see what happens in another week when the judge is to review his decision to hold Hasson without bail pending trial.

      • William King says

        So logic would follow that if the federal government does indeed view Hasson as a terrorist, then I assume he would be treated as one? In other words, doesn’t current US terrorism protocol allow the government to detain him indefinitely just as if he were an Islamic terrorist?

        Ps- Unfortunately for Hasson that a federal prison is unlikely to offer him all the comfort and accouterments that Brevic enjoys in his cell in Norway.

        • Pete Trumbore says

          Actually no. There are no federal domestic terrorism statutes. So instead he has to be charged for the weapons counts, conspiracy to commit murder, things like that. I’ve written before about why we don’t have domestic terrorism laws, but the simple answer is fear of encroaching on first amendment rights to hold and advocate repugnant political or social views. So if they’re going to hold him without trial, they have to be able to show that he represents such a threat to public safety, under existing criminal statutes, that he can’t be safely released on bond.

  2. William King says

    Pss- I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts regarding the Shamima Begum situation (UK) and the problem with ISIS brides. More specifically, I am curious if you have a different take than the CVE experts who seem to uniformly believe she should be repatriated.

    That said, I understand and agree with many of their points (possible intelligence that can be gleaned, easier to monitor if she is back in the UK, better understanding of how she became radicalized in the first place etc., but what I don’t buy, is this notion that by de-nationalizing her ( I hear Bangladesh is lovely in February), you just further radicalize her. Anyway, would be interesting to hear your thoughts on that in a future blog.

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