On Monday, jury deliberations began in the case against four men alleged to have plotted against Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The prosecution, defense and jury instructions have me thinking about the way isolation has affected us all over the last two years.
In her Atlantic article, Olga Khazan explores Why People Are Acting So Weird. (Among her many citations, my STAT News piece, Every Day is an Emergency.) Khazan’s core argument for making sense of unruly airline passengers, violent hospital patients, even Capitol rioters? “We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us.”
Socialization can be a lifeline and prevent tragedy for people who need help. The catch is convincing people not only to seek help but to identify someone who has their best interests at heart.
As we have seen in the Whitmer kidnapping trial, socialization with people who have bad ideas can also make a problem much worse.
In his instructions last week to the Grand Rapids jury now deliberating this case, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker focused on the alleged kidnappers’ motivations. The issue is whether or not the defendants were serious when they cased the governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island, armed themselves with assault weapons and built explosives to take out Whitmer and her security detail.
Amidst all their antisemetic talk about Jewish bankers and revolutionary theories aimed at triggering a civil war, these defendants — according to one of their co-conspirators who pled guilty and testified against them — were absolutely determined to take out our chief executive.
Predictably, defense attorneys fell back on the playbook that helped defeat the government’s 2010 sedition case against the Christian Hutaree Militia. They argued that their clients were a bunch of bullshitters who would have never laid a finger on Whitmer. This paralleled the “big talk no action” defense that led to the 2012 acquittal of all the Hutaree defendants.
The defense argued that the alleged kidnappers were entrapped by government informants. Even if you buy this argument it’s worth having a look at the defining moment in this case — one that underscores the larger question about the hard-to-explain weirdness surge.
Thanks to a secret government recording in Cambria, Wisconsin, the jury knows the ten-year-old daughter of Defendant Barry Croft Jr. interrupted his work to ask him:
Daddy, do you want a Dorito?
Honey, I’m making explosives … I love you.
According to trial coverage by Ken Kolker, “It was during that training exercise that Croft and suspect Daniel Harris built an improvised exploding device.
“An undercover FBI agent at that training said Croft tried twice to light the fuse but it failed to go off.”
This incident speaks to the central issue in this case. Were these men out of their minds?
The defense argued that their clients were unwell mentally during the months they were under FBI surveillance. To hear these attorneys tell it, the defendants were stoned out of their minds as they methodically proceeded to set up Whitmer. In their closing arguments, the defense insisted that all this loose talk of going to war was essentially a series of marijuana-induced brain droppings aided and abetted by crafty government informants.
I doubt Barry Croft Jr. was stoned when he declined that Dorito. He was clear headed enough to address his daughter and return to engineering explosives. That way, the daughter he loved wouldn’t be collateral damage in his pursuit of killing the Democrat he hated.
If you bought the defense argument, stoners would not be liable for t-boning a minivan full of teenagers on their way to a choir rehearsal, embezzling a million dollars from the Detroit Public Schools or bombing hospitals across the Ukraine. This cop-out is unrelated to weird behavior.
As they deliberate today, the jury must decide if these defendants were making bad decisions that could have led to the death of a Governor they wanted to unseat. They never considered the fact that killing Whitmer would probably put them in prison for life. They presumably didn’t realize that their successful execution would have led to Garlin Gilchirst II becoming Michigan’s first African American governor.
Clearly the key moment in the trial was Croft Jr.’s decision to turn away his daughter’s offer for a Dorito in favor of making those powerful explosives. No FBI agent put him on a low sodium diet or paid for the raw ingredients he needed to make those explosives.
Making the same bad decisions month after month is unrelated to pandemic isolation. The fact is that this interstate gang trying to take out our Governor was socializing morning, noon and night. Maybe if they had taken a break and sat down for chips and salsa they would have begun to realize that there is a lot more to life than casting Gretchen Whitmer adrift in a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan.
Roger Rapoport is the producer of the award winning feature films Coming Up For Air, Pilot Error and Waterwalk. His new play Old Heart, adapted from the Peter Ferry novel, premieres at Detroit’s Redford Theater May 14 and 15.