Student entries

COVID-19 Terrorist Threats


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


COVID-19 Terrorist Threats

Maddie Weaver

“A man accused of licking deodorants in a Missouri Walmart after asking ‘Who’s afraid of the coronavirus?’ was charged with making a terrorist threat.”  — “A Man Coughed on a Wegmans Employee. Now He’s Charged with a Felony.” — “Justice Department should charge intentional coronavirus spreaders as terrorists.”[1]

These are just some of the headlines that have been spreading almost as fast as COVID-19 this past week. It is hard to believe that people who are coughing or licking items (including people) can now be charged with terrorism threats.

Cody Lee Pfister, 26, took to social media to post a video which includes him asking “Who’s scared of the coronavirus? Don’t touch your mouth” and then licking a row of merchandise.[2] This video gained international attention and resulted with a terrorist threat charge in the second degree. In Missouri, where this took place, “making a terrorist threat in the second degree means ignoring the risk of “causing evacuation, quarantine, or closure of any portion of a building and is a class E felony, which means it can be met with a prison sentence of up to four years and a fine.” [3]  Similarly, George Falcone, 50, was out shopping for groceries when he was asked to move back from a worker as he was standing too close to her and the food display. He proceeded to move in closer, cough, and laugh after stating that he was infected with the virus.[4] He has been charged with making a terroristic threat in the third degree as well as the fourth degree of obstructing administration of law.

Currently within the tPP codebook, our code lists ‘threats/harassment’ as a general tactic. While I don’t think this should be changed, I do think that this corona virus brings up an interesting clarification within this classification. An interesting thing to note is that the START Global Terrorism Database considers “biological or radiological weapons” as unarmed assault and does not have a separate category for threat or harassment.[5]

START also mentioned in interesting statistic that “Islamist, far-right and far-left extremists are less likely to pursue CB weapons than those acting on behalf of a single issue”.[6] Rather than complicating the codebook and making subcategories now, I think the main point of this should be to keep this event and corona-based bio threats in our mind and look at them closely in the future to see if they should be considered a separate category. I think, looking back, it will prove to be an interesting part of our history and could change the mental image people have when media states “terrorist threat”.

This is a real threat that has and will continue to change the world in a variety of ways. We can all clearly see the chaos that ensues on the world when pandemics happen, even though most of us have never experienced or even dreamt of anything like this. Fortunately, the world may be more prepared for something like this to come again, but I am not sure our people, our economy, or our lives in general could handle this again anytime soon. One good thing to come of this is the DOJ’s commitment to taking potentially dangerous threats and immature behavior, like Pfister and Falcone’s, seriously. CNN’s Samantha Vinograd stated that this new “aggressive step toward holding individuals who knowingly spread the coronavirus (…) serve(s) as a powerful deterrent to those contemplating weaponizing the virus in the weeks ahead.”[7]

 

Notes

[1] Sinéad Baker, “A Man Accused of Licking Deodorants in a Missouri Walmart after Asking ‘Who’s Afraid of the Coronavirus?’ Was Charged with Making a Terrorist Threat,” Business Insider, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-man-accused-licking-walmart-items-charged-with-terror-threat-2020-3; Neil Vigdor, “A Man Coughed on a Wegmans Employee. Now He’s Charged With a Felony.,” The New York Times, March 25, 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/us/coronavirus-terrorism-nj.html; Opinion by Samantha Vinograd, “Justice Department Should Charge Intentional Coronavirus Spreaders as Terrorists,” CNN, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/opinions/justice-department-coronavirus-spreaders-terrorists-vinograd/index.html.

[2] Baker, “A Man Accused of Licking Deodorants in a Missouri Walmart after Asking ’Who’s Afraid of the Coronavirus?”

[3] Baker.

[4] Vigdor, “A Man Coughed on a Wegmans Employee. Now He’s Charged With a Felony.”

[5] Maryland Today Staff, “Researchers Study Characteristics of Extremists Who Pursue Chemical, Biological Weapons | START.Umd.Edu,” START, March 10, 2020, https://www.start.umd.edu/news/researchers-study-characteristics-extremists-who-pursue-chemical-biological-weapons.

[6] Maryland Today Staff.

[7] Vinograd, “Justice Department Should Charge Intentional Coronavirus Spreaders as Terrorists.”

Works Cited

Baker, Sinéad. “A Man Accused of Licking Deodorants in a Missouri Walmart after Asking ‘Who’s Afraid of the Coronavirus?’ Was Charged with Making a Terrorist Threat.” Business Insider. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-man-accused-licking-walmart-items-charged-with-terror-threat-2020-3.

Maryland Today Staff. “Researchers Study Characteristics of Extremists Who Pursue Chemical, Biological Weapons | START.Umd.Edu.” START, March 10, 2020. https://www.start.umd.edu/news/researchers-study-characteristics-extremists-who-pursue-chemical-biological-weapons.

Vigdor, Neil. “A Man Coughed on a Wegmans Employee. Now He’s Charged With a Felony.” The New York Times, March 25, 2020, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/us/coronavirus-terrorism-nj.html.

Vinograd, Opinion by Samantha. “Justice Department Should Charge Intentional Coronavirus Spreaders as Terrorists.” CNN. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/opinions/justice-department-coronavirus-spreaders-terrorists-vinograd/index.html.

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