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Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the top news story was the incident in which a gunman killed three people and shot nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo.
During a Nov. 29 interview, CNN host Brianna Keilar asked Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson about the incident.
"Planned Parenthood is calling this now an act of domestic terrorism," Keilar said. "Do you agree with that assessment?"
Responding by satellite link from Jordan, where he had gone to visit Syrian refugee camps, Carson said, "It certainly is an act of extreme hatred and violence. You know, the Family Research Council, according to some government agencies, is a terrorist group. You know, so let's get away from the rhetoric and talk about the real problem."
A reader asked us to check whether it’s true that government agencies had labeled the Family Research Council a terrorist group. So we took a closer look.
The council would seem like an odd group to be labeled "terrorist." A prominent think tank for social conservatives, the council hardly lives in the shadows. Its experts appear regularly on television, it has a prominent headquarters building in downtown Washington, and its legislative affiliate sponsors a high-profile annual political conference called the Value Voters Summit that attracts a variety of top politicians, including such Republican presidential contenders as … Ben Carson.
We didn’t find that any government agencies have labeled the council as a terrorist group. But the council has sparked condemnation from a high-profile civil rights group, and it seems possible that might be what Carson was thinking of. (Neither Carson’s staff nor the Family Research Council responded to inquiries for this story.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center -- a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors "domestic hate groups and other extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, anti-government militias, Christian Identity adherents and others" -- has labeled the Family Research Council an "extremist group."
Specifically, the Southern Poverty Law Center writes on its website that the Family Research Council’s "specialty is defaming gays and lesbians. The FRC often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science. The intention is to denigrate LGBT people" in various public-policy battles.
The center separately lists several of the Family Research Council’s leaders, including president Tony Perkins and retired Lt. Gen William G. (Jerry) Boykin, the group’s executive vice president, in its category for individual "extremists."
Such designations have flummoxed some observers, including some who generally lean liberal, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who wrote, "I disagree with the Family Research Council's views on gays and lesbians. But it's absurd to put the group, as the law center does, in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church."
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation appears to have contributed to a violent incident when 28-year-old Floyd Corkins shot and wounded a security guard at the Family Research Council’s headquarters in August 2012. The gunman told law enforcement that he was opposed to the council’s socially conservative policies and had targeted the group after using the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website. Corkins later pleaded guilty to transporting a firearm over state lines, assault with intent to kill, and committing an act of terrorism while armed.
We won’t take a position on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation, but we should note that while calling the Family Research Council an "extremist" group is a serious charge, it’s not the same thing as saying the council is a "terrorist" group. The former generally refers to someone who holds extreme views. The latter generally involves something more -- the threat or use of violence to advance such extreme views.
For the record, the Southern Poverty Law Center does not consider the Family Research Council a "terrorist" group, said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the group. "We have no such list," she said.
That said, there has been some blurring of the lines, at least linguistically.
" 'Terrorism' and 'violent extremism' are often used interchangeably -- the Obama administration's policy on countering 'violent extremism' was explicitly intended to replace the term ‘terrorism,' " said Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has studied terrorism.
More definitively for the purpose of gauging Carson’s statement, the Southern Poverty Law Center is not a government agency.
So are there any federal agency lists that label the Family Research Council a terrorist group? The only official, public list of terrorist groups is maintained by the State Department, and the Family Research Council isn’t on it. That list is designed to catalogue foreign terrorist organizations.
Indeed, there is no equivalent list for domestic terrorist groups, though the FBI has cited some broad categories that it considers potential sources of domestic terrorism, including eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists, sovereign citizens movements, anarchist extremism, militia extremism and white supremacy extremism. The Family Research Council is not mentioned by name in any of these categories.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security produced a report in April 2009 titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." When the report was leaked to the public, the newly installed Obama administration took significant heat from some conservatives who said the report unfairly labeled right-of-center groups as potential sources of violence.
However, neither this report -- nor another Department of Homeland Security study focusing on a broader range of potential ideologically driven threats -- lists the Family Research Council, or, for that matter, any other specific conservative groups.
"I do not know of any source that lists the Family Research Council as a ‘terrorist group,’ " said Pete Simi, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he serves as director of radicalization and violent groups research.
Carson said, "the Family Research Council, according to some government agencies, is a terrorist group."
The Family Research Council has been labeled an "extremist" group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but that’s not the same as a "terrorist" group and, more importantly, the center is a private, non-profit group, not a government agency. We could find no government agency that singled out the Family Research Council as a terrorist group, and experts told us they were unaware of any government lists that did. We rate Carson’s statement False.
Ben Carson, interview with CNN, Nov. 29, 2015
NBC News, "Who Is Robert Dear? Planned Parenthood Shooting Suspect Seemed Strange, Not Dangerous, Neighbors Say," Nov. 30, 2015
CNN, "Shooting sparks controversy over 'hate' designation for conservative group," Aug. 17, 2012
Daily Beast, "Is the Family Research Council Really a Hate Group?" Aug. 16, 2012
Family Research Council, staff list, accessed Nov. 30, 2015
Southern Poverty Law Center, list of "extremists," accessed Nov. 30, 2015
Southern Poverty Law Center, list of "extremist groups," accessed Nov. 30, 2015
State Department, "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," accessed Nov. 30, 2015
FBI, "Domestic Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era," Sept. 7, 2009
Department of Homeland Security, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," April 2009
Department of Homeland Security, "Understanding Law Enforcement Intelligence Processes Report to the Office of University Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security," July 2014
Email interview with Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Nov. 30, 2015
Email interview with Pete Simi, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Nov. 30, 2015
Email interview with Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nov. 30, 2015
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