Antifa Terrorist Killed While Attempting to Blow Up ICE Facility

A strangely under-publicized story.

OTB roving correspondent Richard Gardner points me to a troubling incident that happened over a week ago in his neck of the woods that’s being strangely undercovered. Or, at least, under-discussed.

The story was dutifully reported in the New York Times (“Man Attacking ICE Detention Center Is Fatally Shot by the Police“) contemporaneously :

The police fatally shot a man who was attacking an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash., on Saturday morning, the authorities said.

The man, who was armed with a rifle, was throwing unspecified “incendiary devices” at the Northwest Detention Center, according to a police statement. The man, identified by officials on Saturday afternoon as Willem Van Spronsen, 69, of Vashon Island, Wash., continued throwing lit objects at buildings and cars, the statement said.

“One car was fully engulfed in flames,” said Officer Loretta Cool, a spokeswoman for the Tacoma Police Department.

Mr. Van Spronsen also attempted and failed to ignite a commercial-sized propane tank attached to the center, said Shawn Fallah, the resident agent in charge of the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.

“This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility,” he said. “These are the kinds of incidents that keep you up at night.”

This could indeed have been a mass casualty event. And it was clearly motivated by terroristic intent (more on that shortly). Yet, despite my following the news much more closely than the average citizen, I had no inkling it had happened prior to receiving Richard’s email.

Indeed, the Washington Post (“ICE detention-center attacker killed by police was an avowed anarchist, authorities say“) didn’t report on it for nearly a week.

A man fatally shot by police Saturday after allegedly throwing “incendiary objects” at an immigration detention center in Washington state was an anarchist who claimed association with antifascists — known as antifa — according to new details released by police.

Detectives are reviewing a manifesto written and distributed by 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, who police said once belonged to the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, a self-proclaimed “anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker organization.” Officers were not aware of the manifesto before the attack on the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, police said in a statement Thursday.

Van Spronsen, of Washington’s Vashon Island, was also embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife when he allegedly tried to blow up the privately owned detention facility, according to police. He was arrested last year at a protest at the center, court records show.

[…]

The attack came as thousands protested at ICE facilities nationwide ahead of the agency’s announced plans for mass arrests of undocumented immigrants Sunday. Although the Trump administration said it would target about 2,000 families for deportation in as many as 10 cities, large-scale enforcement operations failed to materialize.

The Seattle Times (“‘I’m friendly with death’: The man killed outside Tacoma ICE detention center had a complex life“) has more on the would-be mass killer’s background:

Talk to the people who knew Will Van Spronsen, the 69-year-old Vashon Island man who was fatally shot last Saturday by police outside the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, and a picture emerges of a conflicted and troubled man seen in drastically different ways.

To Sheli Story, of Bremerton, a friend who had known him for 32 years, Spronsen was  ”one of the gentlest and sweetest men I have ever known. He never raised his voice. He was never violent.”

David Giusti, who rents a home on the same seven acres in which Van Spronsen lived in a bus converted into a house, says, “Was your neighbor a terrorist? No, he was a carpenter and a folk singer.”

And then there was his former wife, Shelley, 45, also of Vashon, who since 2013 had obtained four domestic-violence protection orders against Van Spronsen as they tangled over their son, who’s now 14. In the most recent court order, on Feb. 27, after Van Spronsen had previously been granted limited visitation rights with the boy, he was ordered to have no contact with him for one year.

As part of a court order, Van Spronsen was barred from owning firearms.

“His friends never lived with him. They didn’t see that side of him,” Shelley says.

In one statement provided to the court, Van Spronsen’s son described his dad as “scary,” a man who “gets angry all the time.”

“My dad talks about his militia group he is in that has guns, and he has sent me pics on the phone of them at the shooting range … ,” he wrote.

“My dad talks about ‘when his time comes’ he will rob a bank or do something so he will do a death-by-cop.”

Among the documentation presented to the court by his ex-wife were text messages she said were sent by Van Spronsen to his son. In one of the texts, the sender being “Dad” typed between two red hearts, was a photo of a pile of some 50 bullets, with the message, “I’m good. Worked on the barn. Loading mags.”

[…]

In the emotional, rambling document sent to friends before the deadly confrontation, Van Spronsen wrote, “i am antifa,” and declared “detention camps are an abomination.” 

Antifa, short for “antifascist,” is a loose collection of individuals who have confronted those they believe are right-wing extremists.

Van Spronsen is a pretty classic domestic terrorist: a misogynistic gun nut with a history of domestic violence and extreme political views. And, being the modern age, he shared them via social media:

“There’s wrong and there’s right. It’s time to take action against the forces of evil,” Van Spronsen wrote. “Evil says one life is worth less than another. Evil says the flow of commerce is our purpose here. Evil says concentration camps for folks deemed lesser are necessary. The handmaid of evil says the concentration camps should be more humane. Beware the centrist.”

He added, “I have a father’s broken heart. I have a broken down body and I have an unshakeable abhorrence of injustice. That is what brings me here. This is my clear opportunity to make a difference, I’d be an ingrate waiting for a more obvious invitation.”

“In these days of fascist hooligans preying on vulnerable people on our streets, in the name of the state or supported and defended by the state, in these days of highly profitable detention/concentration camps and a battle over the semantics, in these days of hopelessness, empty pursuit and endless yearning, we are living in visible fascism ascendant,” Van Spronsen wrote.

Van Spronsen said “rich guys,” including Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, George Soros, Donald Trump, and others, “really dig government” and “fascism serves the needs of the state serves the needs of business and at your expense.”

[…]

Van Spronsen said that when he was a boy in post-war Holland and later France, he had his head filled with stories about the rise of fascism in the 30s and, “I promised myself I would not be one of those who stands by as neighbors are torn from their homes and imprisoned for somehow being perceived as lesser. You don’t have to burn the motherf*cker down, but are you just going to stand by?”

He said, “To my comrades: I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution. Thank you for the honor of having been in your midst. Give me space to be useful, to feel that I was fulfilling my ideas, has been the spirited pinnacle of my life. My trans comrades have transformed me, solidifying my conviction that we will be guided to a dreamed of future by those marginalized among us today. I have dreamed it so clearly that I have no regret for not seeing how it turns out.”

Van Spronsen wrote, “I am antifa, I stand with comrades around the world who act from the love of life in every permutation. Comrades who understand that freedom means real freedom for all.”

Van Spronsen said he was “radicalized in civics class at 13 when we were taught about the electoral college. It was at that point I decided that the status quo might be a house of cards. Further reading confirmed in the positive. … I am not affiliated with any organization. I have disaffiliated from any organizes who disagree with my choice of tactics. The semi-automatic weapon I used was a cheap, home built unregistered “ghost ar15. I had six magazines. I strongly encourage comrades and incoming comrades to arm themselves. We are now responsible for defending people from the predatory state. Ignore the law in arming yourself if you have the luxury. I did.”

While every indication is that Van Spronsen acted alone, he clearly saw himself as part of a larger movement and as carrying out a specific political agenda. That’s textbook domestic terrorism.

Richard says the story isn’t getting all that much coverage even locally and muses that it would be getting more attention if Van Spronsen was a right-wing Trumper. And maybe it would, since that would better fit a pre-existing narrative.

Still, it’s not like the NYT, WaPo, or Seattle Times are pro-Antifa. They likely sympathize with Van Spronsen’s broad cause; hell, so do I. But only the fringe thinks killing ICE agents—let alone detonating cars and propane tanks—is an acceptable response to domestic policies we abhor.

Maybe this is simply a function of President Trump sucking all of the oxygen out of the room all the time. American Presidents have dominated news coverage as long as I can remember but I’ve never seen anything like Trump’s ability to generate so much noise that it’s impossible to stay on a story, no matter how big, for very long. His tweets about “The Group” came out the same weekend as this incident and have dominated the discussion, including here at OTB, since.

It’s appropriate, of course, to focus on the most powerful man on the planet, particularly when he’s violating longstanding norms. But there’s a real danger that paying so much attention to him means that we’re missing out on important developments.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    It does seem odd this hasn’t received more coverage. It may be because he doesn’t fit the narrative for either side, being both a militia member and an antifacist, and of course anarchist puts him dangerously close to Libertarians. But while that might explain why it hasn’t gained traction on social media it shouldn’t have kept it out of actual news journals.

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  2. But it has received coverage. I saw reports about it on CNN and MSNBC both and I assume Fox News Channel was obsessed with it.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    Yeah, so a quick check shows a number of articles each in the Post and the Times, and the Seattle Times covered it extensively, so I suspect we haven’t noticed it because it hasn’t taken off on Fox/NBC/Twitter due to lacking a clear narrative.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    But it has received coverage. I saw reports about it on CNN and MSNBC both and I assume Fox News Channel was obsessed with it.

    That may indirectly answer or reframe my question. I’ve paid attention to a lot of news via Twitter, the OTB Open Forum, Google News, Yahoo News, memeorandum, a handful of blogs, the Daily podcast, etc. etc. and didn’t see it. But, yes, maybe those who get their news from television were saturated with it.

    Clearly, both NYT and WaPo covered it–although the latter not for several days after the event. But it seemed to have zero legs.

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  5. @James Joyner:

    To some extent that may be because it was in effect an attempted crime that the police were able to stop quickly. Also, given the fact that Trump kept hijacking the news cycle last week it likely got lost in the noise.

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  6. Slugger says:

    We should all strive to strengthen our societal and cultural inhibitions against the use of violence. By the time someone is in a gunfight with the police a lot of things have gone wrong, and I don’t think new laws or stricter enforcement of existing laws will help since by the time someone chooses transgression they are not liable to make rational choices based on consideration of potential sanctions. We overvalue the use of violence in our movies and television shows. Our leaders should strive to emphasize nonviolent conflict resolution. Let’s give peace a chance and practice turning the other cheek. In this spirit, it is not clear to me what sort of publicity we should give to violence; obviously the media has its first amendment rights. Can we somehow deglamorize violence?

  7. grumpy realist says:

    The police may also have asked to keep the story as low-key as possible while trying to figure out whether this was just one lone nut or one of a group.

    (A lot of what antifa does seems to be along the lines of typical anarchist behaviour–people running around looking for an excuse to get into fights and blow things up, rather than people who have actual causes. If they weren’t running around claiming to be “anti-fascists” they’d be running around claiming to be against the WTO, or capitalism, or inorganic vegetables.)

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yes, the Trump angle is my best guess.

    @grumpy realist: Also a useful consideration. As a general rule, I prefer to avoid publicizing these people. In this instance, I don’t know how to do it without referencing him by name unless I want to heavily redact the source material.

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  9. Ol Nat says:

    @grumpy realist:
    I’m not sure I agree with you. The Antifa seems to be particularly a response to Neo-Nazis—unlike the latter, the former rarely seems to start stuff. To be fair, they are the same people protesting against the WTO, but lately they have been causing significantly less damage than white supremacist terrorists.

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  10. Mister Bluster says:
  11. James Joyner says:

    @Mister Bluster: Yes, again, I concede that the story got some reportage. But the fact that I was completely unaware of it a week later is nonetheless surprising.

    Meanwhile, we’re still talking about some moronic tweets made by the President at more-or-less the same time.

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  12. Sleeping Dog says:

    The Tacoma attack trended pretty high at Memeorandum for a couple of days and then faded. “Send her back” did take up most of the attention.

  13. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    It is appropriate that we are still talking about one story and the other didn’t have legs.

    The threat this terrorist posed to ICE and those in that detention center ended when he was killed. The threat to society posed by Trump’s “moronic tweets” remains unabated considering polls showing 88% Republican support for the Racist in Chief.

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  14. SenyorDave says:

    I think the fact that it appears he was a lone, seemingly mentally unbalanced would-be terrorist lessens the appeal of the story. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of angles here. This is not like Charlottesville where you have a group of neo-nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets (and subsequently causing the death of a protester, and then Trump opens his mouth and spews out his usual garbage). There doesn’t appear to be any type of network connecting this guy to a larger group.
    Plus Trump dominated the news cycle.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    Richard says the story isn’t getting all that much coverage even locally and muses that it would be getting more attention if Van Spronsen was a right-wing Trumper. And maybe it would, since that would better fit a pre-existing narrative.

    I saw it at the time (Seattle, local news), got it texted to me by my Profa brothers, and was sort of surprised that it wasn’t the outrage of the week with the right wing media, all angry and furious that AOC hasn’t forcefully denounced Antifa enough because she hates America.

    Maybe this is simply a function of President Trump sucking all of the oxygen out of the room all the time. American Presidents have dominated news coverage as long as I can remember but I’ve never seen anything like Trump’s ability to generate so much noise that it’s impossible to stay on a story, no matter how big, for very long. His tweets about “The Group” came out the same weekend as this incident and have dominated the discussion, including here at OTB, since.

    99% sure you got “The Group” wrong. But now I cannot remember the name. And it’s driving me crazy. I finally had to look it up, because all I could remember is it reminds me of racket ball.

    But, yes, lots of things happened that have been ignored. Barr overruled career DOJ prosecutors to decision to prosecute the cop who killed Eric Garner. The Trump Administration is attempting to redefine our asylum process so no one qualifies. Cohen documents were released that detail Hope Hicks’ and Trump’s involvement in the hush money payments. And that’s just what I remember.

    And I’m sure there was something terrifying about global warming because you can’t go a week without something terrifying on that front.

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  16. Joe says:

    @SenyorDave: so once again what really happened at Charlottesville and Trumps response gets buried under the lefts rhetoric that they are right and the only ones who know the truth so therefore they can scue informatuon because the ends justifies the means. Hundreds of thousands of gun owners are watching this stupidity of the left and at some point will say enough. History illustrates it only takes one shot to start the caticlism that toppeled the British empire in the new world. So keep talking. We are watching and listening to your stupidity.

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  17. JKB says:

    A little embarrassment for CNN.

    “Back in May, CNN’s United Shades of America ran an episode which glorified a Washington-based Antifa chapter called the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club (JBGC), describing them as the “good guy[s].”

    W. Kamu Bell was all excited when one woman showed him her knife and “brass” knuckles (looked plastic) and described her fights. And this attacker apparently appeared in the background of their trailer. The JBGC has declared “the attacker” a martyr for the cause.

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  18. Jay L Gischer says:

    I am from that part of the country, and I just spent the last week here. I spent time yesterday and today with relatives, some of whom live in Tacoma, and others nearby. Nobody mentioned it.

    The group has mixed politics, and we strive to stay away from political discussions because we otherwise like to hang out with each other.

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  19. Han says:

    @James Joyner:

    Meanwhile, we’re still talking about some moronic tweets made by the President at more-or-less the same time.

    The President has more firepower.

  20. FedupPatriot says:

    @Ol Nat: are you really that blind? Care to give examples of any actual Trump supporters going and starting riots ? Attacking people in the streets for their political beliefs ? Trying to blow up detention centers or government buildings ? It’s the Trump croud being attacked by these fascist in disguise as antifascist . Grow up

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  21. Ol Nat says:
  22. gVOR08 says:

    It’s the US in 2019. How much coverage were you expecting with only one casualty, and that the perp?

  23. Humpty says:

    Deporting people is a crime. I’m glad to see someone tried to stop it.

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  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Antifa Terrorist Killed While Attempting to Blow Up ICE Facility

    No no no no, James. He is clearly a “mentally unstable individual”.

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  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It would appear the halfbaked “intellectual” trolls of the right have really come out for this thread.

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  26. SenyorDave says:

    @Joe: Is this satire? I mean this must be a put-on, right? What’s next, are you keeping a list for when the race war comes?

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  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @SenyorDave: What? You aren’t absolutely terrified by this brave member of the 1st Barcalounger Basement Battalion?

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  28. Merc45 says:

    @Scott F.:

    Appears your morning the lump.

    Nothing more than a terrorist with lame ambition..

    Meh

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  29. John F Bramfeld says:

    Yes, lack of coverage is definitely President Trump’s fault. Or perhaps, reduced coverage is a function of people like you, obsessed with Trump and blind to the complete bankruptcy of the progressive movement.

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    It’s the US in 2019. How much coverage were you expecting with only one casualty, and that the perp?

    On a story that shows that the real terrorists are on the left?

    I’d expect wall to wall coverage on Fox, for at least a week, with made up scandals about how Rep. Omar has merely condemned, but not denounced, the horrible tactics and leadership of Antifa.

    I’m really baffled that it didn’t become that.

    Clearly the right-wing keyboard commandos have google news alerts or something to find every mention of this, given that they are coming out of the woodwork, but they can’t quite get the story to resonate.

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  31. Randy says:

    @Doug Mataconis: one mention on fox. Assumptions like that make people look stupid.

  32. Randy says:

    @Ol Nat: you can’t be serious! Antifa is constantly destroying property, assaulting people, and causing all sorts of mayhem. The small number of white Supremists might be an irritation at times, but no one ever gets violent unless antifa shows up. The only ‘damage’ white Supremists inflict, is in your mind.

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  33. Joe Z. Wells says:

    If this person was perceived to be a “right-winger ” and/or Trump Supporter, this would be the top news story 24/7. Maybe a candidate for news storyline of the year! Especially if his manifesto connects in any way with something that the President has said. This is a fact. We all know it. To say otherwise is dishonest.

  34. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    It would appear the halfbaked “intellectual” trolls of the right have really come out for this thread.

    I’m guessing that the key word was ‘antifa’. That’s really the only explanation for a sudden explosion of posters claiming that the Trumpists are the real victims, and record downvotes for actual facts.

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  35. DrDaveT says:

    @Merc45:

    Appears your morning the lump.

    OK, that one has to be Russian trolls…

  36. Stormy Dragon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    and of course anarchist puts him dangerously close to Libertarians

    I’m guessing that by “anarchist”, Spronsen means more Emma Goldman than Murray Rothbard.

  37. Gustopher says:

    Honestly, I’m more interested in the folks who are putting banners on their cars proclaiming this guy to be awesome, than I am interested in this idiot.

    He was an idiot nut job with political motivations. A terrorist by some definitions, although I think we call too many people terrorists when “violent pathetic loser desperately trying to make their useless life have meaning” is a fine term. Definitely a would-be terrorist, at the least.

    But the people who hold him up as an object of admiration… what the fuck? If he was successful, he probably would have hurt more detainees than guards. Whatever else you want to call that, it’s just dumb. Who are these people who celebrate that? Are they even real, or are these right wingers pretending to be antifa to try to make antifa look bad?

    I basically don’t trust anyone to be who they say they are these days.

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  38. Gustopher says:

    Also, I would like to thank this idiot for not succeeding.

    I don’t reject violent protest in extreme cases (my bad back means I won’t be involved, though, plus I’m a coward), but we are absolutely not at the point where storming the death camps and killing the guards to free the detainees is appropriate. If they were death camps, then sure, but they aren’t.

    He has not managed any form of success, not even to raise awareness of the plight of those held in these concentration camps, and I don’t have to ponder whether the ends justify the means at all.

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  39. wr says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: “It would appear the halfbaked “intellectual” trolls of the right have really come out for this thread.”

    Yes, you can always spot a conservative intellectual by their spelling of “croud.”

  40. wr says:

    @Gustopher: Interesting article in the Times this morning about a Qanon-crazy who murdered a mob boss. Apparently this mobster was said to be part of the vast Deep State conspiracy, so he went to perform a citizen’s arrest — having failed in his attempts to do the same to Maxine Waters and Bill DeBlasio — and when the mob boss wouldn’t submit and reached for his waist band, the nut shot him ten times.

    Pretty sure the “antifa terrorist” and this loser are pretty much identical under the politics — mostly crazy and incredibly stupid.

  41. Guarneri says:

    As James points out, of course the NYTs, WaPo etc are not pro-Antifa. But they certainly are not above bias by omission, and Antifa, as a general proposition, is identified as leftist.

    I spent most TV time this weekend watching The Open. But any radio or TV time related to Fox was totally absent this story. Contra several here. Repair your minds.

    Those who pointed out that the best policy is to minimize coverage have it right. It’s legitimate news, so zero coverage is not appropriate. But less is better for groups whose very existence depends on publicity. They certainly have no coherent and worthy message.

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  42. wr says:

    @Guarneri: “Those who pointed out that the best policy is to minimize coverage have it right.”

    Is that why such a rabid Trump-supporter as you has magically ducked out of all threads on Trump’s insisting that any brown-skinned citizen who doesn’t agree with him should leave the country? Or is that just cowardice?

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  43. Guarneri says:

    @wr:

    blah, blah, blah

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  44. michael reynolds says:

    The ratio of people killed by white racist terrorists to people kill by antifa terrorists remains: Hundreds to None.

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  45. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Guarneri: Your eloquence astounds me.

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  46. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    He’s obviously thought deeply about this and other issues.

    He’s so desperate to be taken seriously and so incapable of the level of honesty or reason to enable that to happen. He so wants to sit at the grown-ups table but can’t stop farting and giggling.

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  47. wr says:

    @Guarneri: Yup, cowardice. Thanks for confirming.

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  48. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “He so wants to sit at the grown-ups table but can’t stop farting and giggling.”

    Maybe he’s hoping to be elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. It seems to be the way they’re doing things these days…

  49. dazedandconfused says:

    James,

    Here is a different write-up on the incident from the Seattle Times.

    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/tacoma-police-armed-man-throwing-incendiary-devices-shot-outside-ice-detention-center/

    This one reports that the guy got in a fight with a cop while protesting the day before, went home, wrote goodbye letters to his acquaintances, and then committed suicide-by-cop.

    I think if he had been a true terrorist he would have come “heavy” the day before. This was ad-hoc and without a serious plan to do a lot of damage so that’s why I call it suicide.

  50. Mikhail says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Damned if I did, and I’m on news 16 hrs per day.