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The Media’s Double Standard

Some hate crimes are less hateful than others.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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On August 15, 2012, at 10:46 a.m.—one year ago this week—Floyd Lee Corkins entered the lobby of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. He was carrying a backpack that contained 15 Chick-fil-A -sandwiches, a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol, and 100 rounds of ammunition. Corkins has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing for the crimes he proceeded to commit. He’s set to spend decades in a prison cell and fade into obscurity. 

Leo Johnson at the entrance to the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

Leo Johnson at the entrance to the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

the weekly standard / isabel kret

But Leo Johnson deserves to be remembered for his heroism that day. The building manager for the Family Research Council was manning the front desk that morning and let Corkins enter the building under the pretense he was a new intern. The video of what happened after that is remarkable. 

After Corkins takes a suspiciously long time rummaging through his bag to produce identification, Johnson cannily stands up and walks around the desk to get a closer look at what Corkins is doing. Corkins bolts upright, gun in hand. Without the slightest hesitation, Johnson rushes Corkins, who fires twice. A bullet shatters Johnson’s left forearm. “And I just couldn’t hear anything, my arm just kind of blew back. So at that point I was thinking: ‘I have to get this gun,’ ” Johnson told The Weekly Standard. “That was my sole focus—I have to get this gun—this guy’s gonna kill me and kill everybody here.”

From there, Johnson somehow manages to push Corkins across the lobby and pin him against the wall with his bad arm. “I just started punching him as hard as I could, until I could feel his grip loosen,” recalled Johnson. Eventually he takes the gun from Corkins with his wounded arm. Before long, Corkins is subdued on the ground. Corkins now admits that it was his intention to shoot everyone in the building. There’s no question Johnson saved a lot of lives. 

Still, Johnson has been living with the consequences of that day ever since. “I had to have surgery right away to clear all of that shattered bone and remove the bullet fragments. Maybe about a week or so after that I developed blood clots in my right lung—five blood clots. So I had to go back in the hospital. I got put on blood-thinner so I was in about seven days. After a couple months of therapy there was about four inches of bone that didn’t grow back so I had to have another surgery to remove about four inches of bone from my pelvis and have it put into my arm,” he said. “This whole ordeal, it was tough on my family. My mom is 73 and she has health issues. My grandma is 103—she just turned 103. And I’m their primary caretaker, so it’s been hard for me to get back on my feet and also take care of them so that they’re okay.”

In spite of the trauma, Johnson seems remarkably at peace and said he’s never even lost sleep over what happened. “Other than getting shot, obviously, I wouldn’t change a thing. I think God put me in that position to be there. Had [Corkins] not gained entrance here, he would’ve gone somewhere else and maybe carried out his plan,” said Johnson, noting that the Family Research Council was just one of a number of targets Corkins selected. “God put me there. He protected me. He gave me the strength to do what I needed to do.” 

There’s a lot that should be said about Johnson’s heroism, starting with the fact that it hasn’t been widely recognized. Over the last few years, thanks to events such as the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the George Zimmerman trial, the media have been subjecting us all to a constant and unavoidable national debate about the nexus of politics and violence. This has been unusually perplexing because the media persist in having this debate even when no connection between politics and violence exists. 

The Family Research Council shooting is one of the few inarguable examples of politically motivated violence in recent years, yet looking back a year later, the incident has garnered comparatively little attention. Corkins openly admits he selected the Family Research Council because the Christian organization is one of  

the leading opponents of gay marriage in the country. He had Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his backpack because the CEO of the fast-food chain was under fire for publicly supporting a biblical definition of marriage. Corkins said he planned to “smother Chick-fil-A sandwiches in [the] faces” of his victims as a political statement. And in case that didn’t make his motivations transparent, right before Corkins shot Leo Johnson, he told him, “I don’t like your politics.” 

There are some illuminating contrasts between the media’s handling of the political dimensions of the Family Research Council shooting and the shooting of Representative Giffords. In the latter case, the media rushed to assume political motivations and were quick to blame, of all people, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate had put out a map with crosshairs over Giffords’s congressional district as part of a list of Democratic-held seats “targeted” for defeat. But Giffords’s shooter, Jared Loughner, appears to have serious mental problems. And there is no evidence whatsoever Loughner saw this map or that allegedly violent political rhetoric—even “campaign” is a term borrowed from war—was in any way a cause of the Giffords shooting. That didn’t stop serious news organizations from lending institutional credibility to the irresponsible allegations. The Washington Post ran a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.” And though Giffords was shot in January 2011, as recently as this year in an article on gun violence the New York Times saw fit to remind readers that “many criticized Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee, for using cross hairs on her Web site to identify Democrats like Ms. Giffords.” 

By contrast, the media handled awkwardly the revelation that Corkins admitted to plotting mass murder as a means of furthering a popular liberal cause. “A detail sure to reignite the culture wars that erupted around the shooting is the fact that Corkins told FBI agents that he identified the Family Research Council as anti-gay on the Web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” wrote the Washington Post during Corkins’s trial in February. It’s a little unseemly for a newspaper, when finally forced to confront actual politically motivated violence, to worry about the shooting’s impact on the metaphorical “culture war.” Particularly when irresponsible actors in that culture war continue to get a free pass from the media. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was once a laudable civil rights organization that sued racists and violent extremists. Now it regularly demonizes anyone who runs afoul of its knee-jerk liberal politics, and despite this it is still regularly cited by the media as a “nonpartisan” watchdog. Some of the SPLC’s newly targeted “hate groups,” such as pickup artists, are merely kooky or distasteful. Others singled out by the SPLC, including Catholics who go to Latin mass or Christian organizations similar to the Family Research Council, are well within the mainstream. Tellingly, the SPLC doesn’t just name the Family Research Council on its website—it posts the council’s address on a “hate map.” That map is still on SPLC’s website, and the organization refused calls to take it down after the Family Research Council shooting.

As recently as last week, SPLC cofounder Morris Dees defended the Family Research Council’s inclusion on the “hate map.” “Well, first of all, having a group on our hate map doesn’t cause anybody to attack them any more than they attacked us for one thing or another,” Dees told CNSNews.com on August 6. It takes quite a bit of hubris for Dees to defensively equate rhetorical attacks on his own organization with actual gun violence against an organization whose politics he dislikes. It also seems more than a little convenient that Dees now denies a connection between rhetoric and violence. In 2011, an SPLC blog post, “Expert: Political Rhetoric Likely a Factor in Arizona Shooting,” concluded that Sarah Palin’s rhetoric “could have provided a facilitating context” for the Giffords shooting, though, again, there is no evidence Loughner was exposed to it. 

By the loose standard of “facilitating context,” the unjust inclusion of the Family Research Council headquarters on a “hate map” otherwise filled with violent white nationalist organizations is a much more serious transgression—particularly when Corkins admits he used the map to learn about his target. And while Leo Johnson’s defining characteristics are his courage and character, as long as we’re talking about context, it’s worth pondering why the founder of a celebrated civil rights organization is obdurately unreflective about the role his SPLC played in the shooting of a black man. 

Dees’s callous remarks only underscore the point that, unlike many of the more publicized incidents in recent years, the Family Research Council shooting actually warrants a discussion. If anyone is sincerely interested in frankly exploring politics and violence, Leo Johnson still works at the Family Research Council and walks past the bullet holes in the lobby every day. It might be worth asking him what he thinks. “I’ve worked here for 14 years. I know these people, I’ve worked closely with them, and I know what people they are,” he says. “So to label them a hate group is absurd. It’s absurd.”

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer  at The Weekly Standard.

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