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Last spring, three white men were convicted of plotting to blow up an apartment complex in Kansas where a lot of Somali immigrants lived. This week, those men are scheduled to be sentenced. Their lawyers will argue that the men should not get the death penalty because they were drawing inspiration from the president of the United States. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The day after an American son of an Afghan immigrant killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in 2016, candidate Trump made a fiery speech.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer.
MORRIS: The very next day, Patrick Stein stood in a Kansas field, discussing a plot to bomb Muslim immigrants. He didn't know that one of the men present was an FBI informant.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Federal investigators say they broke up a right-wing militia plot. The plan was to blow up a mosque and apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas.
MORRIS: And these threats are on the rise, according to John Cohen, who's currently a criminal justice professor at Rutgers.
JOHN COHEN: In the 32-plus years that I've been involved in law enforcement or homeland security, I have never seen a threat environment as volatile as the one that we're now experiencing.
MORRIS: According to the FBI, hate crimes are up 17 percent in the U.S. just last year. And Cohen says that mirrors a rise in inflammatory political rhetoric.
COHEN: The primary mass casualty threat facing the United States today comes from disaffected, violence-prone individuals who become inspired by what they see on social media. And they self-connect with some ideological or political cause to justify a violent attack.
MORRIS: By violence-prone individuals, he's talking about people like Patrick Stein, the ringleader of the Kansas bomb plot. Stein had a checkered work history and a meth problem. His lawyers argue that he was radicalized by a steady diet of conspiratorial right-wing broadcasting, hateful social media posts and Trump's rhetoric. They're asking a federal judge to consider that, among other factors, in sentencing. Florida attorney Ron Lowy says similar logic could be applied to the case of another accused would-be bomber, Cesar Sayoc, his former client, accused of mailing 14 pipe bombs to CNN and prominent Democrats.
RON LOWY: People want to be patriotic. It's in their nature. But when you have someone that's mentally ill who wants to be patriotic, they will listen very closely to the words of these leaders. And they may take them too seriously.
MORRIS: LA attorney Caleb Mason says political rhetoric is never a legal excuse for actual physical violence. But he says he has used it to defend hateful speech.
CALEB MASON: It is not a crime to make a political statement using rhetoric that is widely understood and available in the political context.
MORRIS: So long as it doesn't explicitly encourage or credibly threaten violence. Still, John Cohen urges politicians and pundits to adopt a higher standard.
COHEN: I would like to hope that as we learn more about the threat environment in this country, that those running for office and those holding elected office will understand that their words do matter.
MORRIS: And Cohen argues that just as those words can inspire crowds of followers, they can also inspire disaffected people who are already prone to violence. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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