Pelosi attack comes amid surge in threats of violence against Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, 82, was invaded and attacked at their California home earlier Friday, reminding us of what will happen in January 2021. Something we learned after the Capitol attack on 6th: The US Capitol Police Department is woefully understaffed and woefully underfunded. The head of the department, the first line of defense for members of the House and Senate to operate in Washington and the region, said in August that the department was still understaffed. Speaker Pelosi was reportedly the man the attackers were looking for Friday morning. But she wasn’t home, and her security was traveling with her. There is no permanent police presence in the Speaker’s home, which is confusing.

There is no permanent police presence in the Speaker’s home, which is confusing.

On Monday afternoon, the Justice Department charged 42-year-old David DePapp with attempted kidnapping and assault with intent to retaliate against federal officials by threatening or injuring family members. In California state court, he is expected to face charges including attempted murder, first-degree burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery causing grievous bodily harm, elder abuse and threatening a public official or family member.

Pelosi isn’t the first member of Congress to be targeted, and she’s unlikely to be the last. Five years ago, then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was seriously injured when he was hit during a practice session for a congressional baseball game, and last week, the Department of Homeland Security and the federal The Bureau of Investigation issued a joint bulletin with law enforcement warning of an increased threat environment for the midterm elections. That warning included a concern that elected lawmakers could be targeted for violence by domestic violent extremists as they raise their public profile and exposure during this campaign season. These concerns are justified. Statistics from the Capitol Police show that threats against members of Congress have increased by a staggering 967 percent since 2016.

The safety of our legislators should not be a partisan issue. We want and need our members of Congress to be visible and accessible, not hiding in some bunker. Here are three things we should do now to protect all of us who represent us in Washington.

First, emergency funds should be authorized to hire recently retired Secret Service and State Department diplomatic security personnel as contractors to protect lawmakers as they travel. While the Capitol Police Department’s recruiting and training process progresses, emergency hiring of retired agents already trained and experienced in executive protection will serve as a quick fix.

Second, expedited federal funding could be made available through the Department of Justice to local and state police agencies for overtime and additional on-duty pay so those officers can establish a high-profile presence in members of Congress. Federal law makes it illegal to attack a member of Congress or their family members in their official capacity. However, federal funding is insufficient to protect these members and their families. If we are serious enough about such attacks to have laws against them, then we should be just as serious about funding measures to prevent them.

Third, the security measures of social media platforms must be fixed.The daughter of the man accused of attacking Paul Pelosi described her father this way: “He’s been engulfed by darkness.” But little darkness hangs over anything he is consuming. In fact, his advocacy and promotion of dangerous conspiracy theories are ubiquitous on Facebook and other platforms in broad daylight. It is in places like this that the next attacker signals violent tendencies.

Within minutes of DePape being identified as a suspect, anyone with an internet connection could find his posts on accounts, blogs and websites. The alleged attackers support false theories involving vaccines, voter fraud, communism and aliens. He published what the Washington Post described as “profoundly anti-Semitic writing” and lashed out at “pedos,” in line with QAnon’s belief that Satanist, baby-eating cannibals rule the country. On a website named after DePape, there is “an illustration of a zombie Hillary Clinton dining on human flesh,” according to the Associated Press. These debunked conspiracy theories have been shown to drive their followers towards violence.

We know that radicalization of cyberbullying is real, and those most likely to commit violence are telling us who they are. Law enforcement and social media platforms don’t seem to know what to do.

The radicalization of cyberbullying is real, and those most likely to commit violence are telling us who they are.

Facebook shut down DePape’s account almost immediately after the attack on Paul Pelosi. A few hours later, web hosting service WordPress shut down a DePape site on the platform for violating its terms of service. What if the platforms deleted the accounts before the attempted murder on Friday?

Facebook touted its strong security measures and partnerships with law enforcement. But last year, a whistleblower told Congress that its bragging was not worth it. Likewise, the FBI said it “regularly” shared threat information with Facebook and other sites as part of effective cooperation. But these efforts have not been effective enough.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, spent nearly $27 million last year on security alone to keep CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his family safe. If it can do that, it can increase spending through artificial intelligence, enhanced algorithms, increased staffing, and more importantly, more sophisticated sharing of real-time intelligence and threats to keep our lawmakers safe. This can already be done without violating basic civil liberties and privacy protections. We just need more.

Ironically, Paul Pelosi and his alleged attacker were taken to Zuckerberg’s San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, which was presented to Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan in 2015. San Francisco General Hospital, the city’s only public hospital, was renamed the hospital after a donation of $75 million. Five years later, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the government agency that originally approved the name change, voted to condemn the hospital’s name change to express its dissatisfaction with Facebook’s business practices and failed content moderation, which the board said fueled violence.

Zuckerberg said in response to Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen’s October 2021 congressional testimony: “At the heart of these allegations is the idea that we put profits over safety and well-being. That’s not true.” He also said “It is very illogical to say that we intentionally push outrageous content for profit,” he said. “I don’t know of any technology company that intends to make products that are outrageous or frustrating,” he said.

Despite Zuckerberg’s denials, perhaps the supervisory board was prescient in condemning the name change to celebrate him. No amount of charitable giving can make up for the continued role Facebook and other platforms continue to play in spreading the virus of violence.

We need to implement all of the above—hiring more officials, protecting the homes of lawmakers, and increasing surveillance on social media platforms—to counter threats to our government. Members of Congress, what you voted for and what you did not vote for is a living example of our democratic process. If our democracy is to stay alive and healthy, then we must take steps to keep our legislators alive and healthy as well.

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