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Why is the FBI creating extremists instead of catching them?

Jim Watson/Getty Images

The events in Charlottesville this weekend demonstrated that America has a violent, racist right, and that it is organized, mobilized, and ready to kill. But instead of going after these already dangerous radicals, the FBI is busy radicalizing people who otherwise might not have bothered with political violence. This much is evident in the case of Jerry Drake Varnell, a man who was arrested in Oklahoma yesterday for a plot to bomb a bank that appears to have been entirely instigated by the Bureau.

Varnell is not a nice guy. He is said to have been motivated by hatred of the federal government and by far-right ideologies that he found online. How he found those ideologies, and who pushed him toward extremism, is unclear. What is clear, from a criminal compaint filed against Varnell, is that he was in contact with undercover FBI agents and informants who persuaded him to enact a violent plot, then staged that plot in order to arrest him for it.

The bombing that Varnell believed he was planning was entirely fake, concocted by the FBI to entrap him: What he thought was a bomb was not, what he thought was a stolen cargo van was not, what he thought was a detonator was not. The apparent entrapment was made more sinister by Varnell’s insistence, in conversations with the FBI agents whom he thought were his co-conspirators, on setting off the bomb at night, so as to minimize casualties. To some commentators, that sounded like the behavior of someone who wouldn’t have committed violence if the FBI hadn’t put him up to it.

It’s part of a long tradition for the FBI. Take, for instance, the three Brooklyn men the FBI arrested in 2015, who likely would not have wanted to travel to Syria or join ISIS if undercover agents had not convinced them that it was a good idea. Or think of the Somali-American teenager in Portland, Oregon, who was convinced to detonate a bomb in a parking lot by undercover agents he met through his mosque. In fact, what seems most unusual about the entrapment of Varnell was that this time the FBI targeted a right-wing white man, using a tactic that it most often reserves for young men of color.

It is interesting that the arrest of a white right-winger in an FBI sting comes just as the country is gripped by the events in Charlottesville. That various law enforcement agencies were caught off-guard by the danger these white supremacists pose only underscores the FBI still has no idea how to deal with the real far-right threat.