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Politically motivated 'swatting' incidents reveal how common anti-government terrorism is becoming, expert warns

SWAT team members search for a suspect at a residential building.
Political figures are increasingly facing threats of 'swatting,' where a person calls in a fake threat to encourage police to raid a target's residence or workplace in order to intimidate or harm them.Mario Tama via Getty Images
  • Politicians and judges are increasingly facing intimidation via "swatting" attacks.

  • Swatting is when a person calls in a threat to prompt police to raid a target's home or workplace.

  • Authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat told BI why swatting is indicative of democracy declining.

Elected officials across the political spectrum are facing increased swatting threats, phoned in from unknown perpetrators seeking to terrorize government workers, in what one expert in authoritarianism told Business Insider is evidence of our democracy declining.

Swatting is an intimidation and harassment tactic characterized by a person or multiple people acting together to report a false threat to law enforcement, such as a mass shooting or hostage situation, prompting police to forcefully raid a target's home or workplace to stop the imaginary crime.

Recent swatting calls targeting Republicans like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, as well as Democrats like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Judge Arthur Engoron — who is overseeing the New York fraud case against Donald Trump — demonstrates a marked escalation in a trend experts have been warning about for years.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present," which examines how autocratic leaders stay in power by utilizing the power of corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo. She told Business Insider that the increasing spate of swatting attempts is an intensification of anti-government extremism plaguing the country.

No official statistics are publicly available regarding how many swatting calls occur a year, but The Economist reported in 2019 that a former FBI swatting expert estimated that "annual swatting incidents have climbed from roughly 400 in 2011 to more than 1,000." An FBI report reviewed by CBS indicated there may be more than 500 recorded swatting calls nationwide since May of 2023.

"These are tactics that terrorists have used in the past to disseminate chaos and fear with fake bomb threats — they're not new tactics," Ben-Ghiat told BI. "But what seems to be very prominent now is they're being directed toward politicians of both parties and also judges who are involved in prosecuting Trump and his co-conspirators in some way."

There's a logic behind the orchestrated threats, Ben-Ghiat said, which is to create a sense of chaos and fear, exhaust the resources of law enforcement, and, most alarmingly, intimidate politicians into abiding by extremists' wishes or turning a blind eye to their violent grabs for power in fear they'll be targeted.

A threat turned lethal

Forcing targets to have extremely stressful encounters with police isn't just an emotional threat — swatting incidents can also turn deadly. While not politically motivated, a 2017 incident involving a dispute over the video game "Call of Duty: WWII" left a man dead after police responded to a swatting call with lethal force.

The victim in the 2017 case, Andrew Thomas Finch, was not related to the initial online dispute between gamers Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill. Rather, police responded to Finch's home after Gaskill offered Viner a false address in response to Viner's threats to have Gaskill swatted, saying he'd "be waiting."

Viner then had a friend, Tyler Barriss, call Wichita police claiming to be a man named Brian, falsely telling authorities he'd had killed his father and was holding his family hostage at the address given by Gaskill. Less than 10 seconds after Finch exited his home with his hands up, he was shot and killed by police.

The Wichita police indicated in a statement at the time that the shooting was prompted by Finch reaching toward his waistband, and the city council indicated a willingness to revisit training procedures in the wake of the incident.

Barriss was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison. Viner was sentenced to 15 months.

Swatting is now increasingly political

While both Democrats and Republicans have been targeted in recent swatting attempts, Ben-Ghiat says the threats are really against the political establishment.

"The thing about these threats is, whatever form they're taking, they normalize the idea of threatening public officials," Ben-Ghiat told BI. "And this is very important: the more these attempts happen, the more others are encouraged to mimic. It's the same with mass shootings; there are copycats."

Ben-Ghiat pointed to former President Donald Trump's increasingly extreme rhetoric as a method to communicate to the public that no one is off limits — that even elected officials and judges can be threatened — which she said is a hallmark of authoritarianism and a likely cause in the increasing threats.

"We're seeing a kind of degradation of the fabric of civil society," Ben-Ghiat said. "In normal times when democracy is more robust and you don't have demagogues preaching violence or inciting coups and sending politicians of both parties running for their lives, there's a kind of a check on such behavior."

She added: "But what Trump has done by energizing every kind of extremist, by saying he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, he's given permission to all kinds of extremists to take actions, and he's rewarded those actions rhetorically, he's never condemned such actions."

The goal is to keep critics quiet

According to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, some Republicans who've privately condemned Trump's behavior have kept their concerns quiet due to threats that have been made against people who stand up against him, MSNBC reported.

And that's the point, Ben-Ghiat said.

"Anybody can be a target now, any elected official, any public official, any election worker," Ben-Ghiat said. "And so the ultimate goal is to make people self-censor, to make people compromise and not do their job because they're worried about their children — and autocrats always do things to make you self-censor."

Many times, the high-profile people targeted by swatting also face other kinds of threats simultaneously, Ben-Ghiat said, and it's impossible to track the exact number of incidents because they aren't always publicly reported — so it's probably happening much more than we think.

Republicans in particular, in addition to possible threats against their safety, may also be holding their tongues due to fear their careers may be in jeopardy if they stand up against Trump, Ben-Ghiat said, pointing to ousted Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as an example.

But the author and professor, who herself has been threatened by Trump's supporters, has harsh words for the people who refuse to stand up against him anyway.

"A lot of Republicans secretly are very afraid, that's why they're really silent: they've been threatened," Ben-Ghiat said. "And they're, in my opinion, huge cowards because they're the ones who could lead a different path for the Republican Party, and yet they choose to remain silent."

Resistance isn't futile

Ben-Ghiat said it would take a unified Republican front to push back against Trump's rhetoric and help re-establish democratic norms that would ensure the safety of elected officials. However, "that's not going to happen," she said.

If Trump becomes the GOP nominee for president in 2024, Ben-Ghiat said the potential likelihood of continued political violence, not just threats, sharply increases.

"We know that if there are mass protests, for instance, the military or organized militias against civilians, there's a huge potential for violence, and there are people who are waiting to have this kind of violence, so that's very scary," Ben-Ghiat said. "The other scenario is if Trump loses and, just like January 6, which was a leader rescue operation where his people were rescuing their distressed leader, violence would be likely then."

Because authoritarian leaders bank on their opponents becoming disenchanted with the system and, due to either fear or apathy, giving up the fight against them, it makes standing up publicly and continuing the fight all the more important, Ben-Ghiat said.

"That's what Trump does 24/7, hammering the idea 'We're coming for you, don't resist, we're coming for you,'" referring to his administration and supporters, Ben-Ghiat told BI. "And so it's very important, and the history of authoritarianism shows us this, to not believe those things."

She added: "There are big problems right now, it's very volatile right now. But one of my mantras is never to underestimate the American people — because people thought Trump would win in 2020, too."

Read the original article on Business Insider