GBI: ‘Hate rhetoric is not a crime’

Though it may feel to some like terrorism and anti-government activities have increased everywhere, state and local law enforcement officials say that is not necessarily true in Georgia.

One of the most recent case of terrorism that GBI Director Vernon Keenan recalls involved the four elderly men convicted two years ago of plotting over coffee to make ricin so they could kill Atlanta-based federal agents and judges and attack the government they hated so much. Two of them pleaded guilty and a jury in federal court in Gainesville convicted the other two.

Also in 2014, a former Fort Stewart soldier was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a 17-year-old girl and her boyfriend to protect an anti-government militia group he and others had formed inside the military.

And last August, three Rome men were sentenced to 12 years in prison for plotting to use “weapons of mass destruction” to attack the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There’s been an anti-government environment out there for the past decade,” Keenan said Monday. “I don’t know that it’s increased. I think it’s been pretty constant.”

Groups calling themselves “militias” are fairly common in Georgia. They view themselves as patriots and defenders of the Constitution; indeed, many adopt the name “militia” because the Founding Fathers used that word in the Second Amendment. Militias typically are well-versed in the use of firearms, but forming a militia and training with guns are not illegal. In public statements, some of these groups downplay any animus they may have toward the federal government and say they stand for personal liberty and self-reliance.

Keenan’s comments came on the second day that anti-government activists have occupied the headquarters at a National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. They are protesting a federal appeals court’s ruling that the trial judge should have given two local ranchers longer prison sentences for setting fires on federal land. The ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46 — have said they accepted the appeals court decision and would report to prison and they do not want help from the protesters from outside of Oregon who have taken over the refuge.

Keenan said calls to Georgia law enforcement from concerned citizens — even those who live in other states — seem to increase after news accounts of crimes by anti-government groups and somehow citizens link those activities to terrorism by radical Islamic groups. Keenan said the tips are passed on to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and is led by the FBI.

Keenan said the GBI has no open investigation.

“There has to be some kind of criminal activity,” he said. “Rhetoric does not fall into that territory. Hate rhetoric isn’t a crime. It’s protected by the First Amendment.”

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