Paul Rosenfeld: ‘Sortition’ Supporter Charged in Election Day Suicide Bomb Plot

paul rosenfeld

Booking Photo Paul Rosenfeld.

The FBI has arrested a New York man accused of plotting to blow himself up on Election Day in the National Mall in a suicide bombing. Prosecutors said his plan was to draw attention to “sortition,” which is a “political theory that advocates the random selection of government officials.”

Paul Rosenfeld was charged October 10 with unlawfully manufacturing a destructive device and interstate transportation and receipt of an explosive, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said in a press release. Rosenfeld told the FBI he was not aiming to injure or kill anyone other than himself, but federal authorities said the bombing would have put others at risk.

“As alleged, Paul M. Rosenfeld concocted a twisted plan to draw attention to his political ideology by killing himself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—risking harm to many others in the process,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “Rosenfeld’s alleged plan for an Election Day detonation cut against our democratic principles. Thanks to outstanding coordination between local and federal law enforcement, Rosenfeld’s alleged plot was thwarted and he is now in federal custody.”

The FBI said in a criminal complaint that agents found, “a functional explosive device weighing approximately 200 pounds,” in the basement of Rosenfeld’s home in Tappan, New York, in Rockland County. In a blog post in 2015, Rosenfeld said, “Those of us who feel that voting (in its current configuration) represents a scam should be agitating outside of the poles [sic] at every election.”

Here’s what you need to know about Paul Rosenfeld, his alleged bombing plot and sortition:

1. Rosenfeld Told a Reporter in Pennsylvania He Planned to Blow Himself Up Because He Is Angry With the Direction the Country & Told the FBI He Had Made Smaller Devices to Conduct Test Detonations

Paul Rosenfeld began communicating with a reporter in Pennsylvania about his plan to blow himself up, leading to the FBI investigation, NBC New York reports. He told the unnamed reporter he was “angry about the country’s direction,” the news station reports.

Rosenfeld sent letters and text messages to the reporter and in those messages, he detailed the plans for the suicide bombing, according to the criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York. Rosenfeld also told the reporter about his support for the sortition theory, the FBI said in the complaint.

The FBI served a search warrant at Rosenfeld’s home in Tappan, New York, on October 9, according to court documents. He was then interviewed by agents and told them he had ordered “large quantities of ‘black powder’ over the Internet,” and brought it to his house in New York. Rosenfeld told the agents he made “smaller explosive devices” than the one he planned to use on Election Day and “had conducted test detonations.”

Rosenfeld also used about eight pounds of the “black powder” to build a larger explosive device in his basement, according to the criminal complaint. He told the agents he installed “certain components” in the device to ensure he would be killed in the blast. According to the FBI, “black powder” is an explosive substance used as a propellant in firearms, artillery and rockets.

The FBI said they found a plywood box in Rosenfeld’s basement containing “black powder.” According to the criminal complaint, explosive experts X-rayed the device and discovered, “that engaging the firing switch on the explosive device would generate an electrical charge, which would, in turn, spark an ‘e-match’ inside the explosive device, thereby igniting the black powder.”

The FBI agents also found empty canisters of black powder.

He told the FBI he would drive the device to Washington D.C. to detonate the device on the National Mall and draw attention to his political belief in sortition. Rosenfeld told the FBI he acted alone.

You can read the full criminal complaint below:

2. He Wrote an Essay in 2015 on a ‘Kletorian’ Blog in Which He Argued Sortition Is ‘Common Sense,’ but They Must ‘Convince Enough People to Put Our Movement on the Map’

In 2015, Rosenfeld wrote an essay on the blog “Equality by Lot,” a site run by “Kletorians,” the name that supporters of sortition and the “deliberate use of randomness (lottery) in human affairs.” In the blog post, titled “Extinction of Politics,” Rosenfeld argued that they had to work harder to raise awareness of their political theory.

“We aren’t a minority and we aren’t a fringe group (not even a lunatic fringe); from the perspective of politics we simply don’t exist (at least not in the U.S.),” he wrote. “Our sense of things is anything but common, it is exceedingly rare. If we ever hope to see this thinking converted into action that will have to change. Somehow we must convince enough people to put our movement on the map. For this, we will need a highly effective argument, because the people we wish to persuade are living under the thrall of a myth.”

He added:

The average citizen of our globe believes fervently in something which they call “The Democratic Process”. Voting is its central tenet. No matter how often it fails them they rarely waver in their devotion. And like true believers, fundamentalists even, each further obstacle is taken as a sign; the path is righteous but rocky, we must purify our faith and trudge ever onward. When we are finally worthy, the Democratic Process will at last deliver us. The road to true reverence has been long. Following the rise of the Third Estate there came the fall of property qualifications; then the secret ballot; voting by freed slaves; direct election of Senators; the ballot initiative and finally women were included. None of this brought deliverance and so today’s mantra is “corporate cash”. If only we can somehow stay the floodgates of corporate influence which pervert the process of “True” Democracy, then at long long last we will finally enter the promised land.

The origin of this myth is difficult to place. I suspect Christian infused political philosophy from the Enlightenment has played a role. The centuries of demagoguery which followed have probably reinforced this thinking as well. But I also believe it goes deeper than this, or any intellectual history. I think that the faith in “one man, one vote” strikes directly to our core. I believe, quite literally, that it is in our blood. We humans are defined by a set of political behaviors which are transmitted from one generation to the next. The relative importance of genetics vs. culture in this transmission is probably debatable, but either way the behavior is a given (in the short term at least). We’re stuck with it. We may not care for it today but this behavior served our ancestors well for thousands of generations. It won’t change overnight.

He also wrote:

Majority rule represents the the deliberate suppression of violence in favor of political maneuvering. This social truce holds only so long as the various parties each possess a credible threat of violence in the event that politics breaks down. When a faction (such as the peasantry) is disarmed, disorganized, or without military training, they will inevitably lose their political rights and descend to the level of slavery.”

The logical end of majority rule is monarchy. The constant political maneuvering of individuals and factions must inevitably trend towards a winner takes all conclusion. Even today, despite all our “democratic” pretensions in the U.S., one might easily imagine a scenario in which President Jeb Bush (following an act of nuclear terrorism) suspends the electoral process, under the pretext that “terrorists” have infiltrated the Democratic party. A perpetual dynasty of Bush leaders would be a plausible outcome. Most people imagine that democracy and monarchy are different animals, but they are actually cousins.

In the comments of the blog, Rosenfeld said, “I have just always assumed that legislators chosen by lot would be treated like other “civil servants” and subjected to an appropriate examination. Cops and Firefighters take a test, nobody calls this “elitist”. Surely lawmakers must demonstrate some minimum knowledge of history and economics if nothing else. Personally I wouldn’t want to set the bar too high because I do believe much knowledge and wisdom are impossible to measure; but a room full of the ignorant and illiterate!!”

You can read his full blog post here.

According to the Sortition Foundation, a group run by British political scientist Brett Hennig, “Sortition is the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions. An assembly that uses sortition would be composed of people just like you and me: it would be a representative random sample of people, making decisions in an informed, fair and deliberative setting.”

The foundation says, “Sortition has a long history, going back at least to Ancient Athens, where selection by lot (from among all free, male citizens) was the principal way courts and councils were filled. For hundreds of years it was considered a fundamental aspect of democracy; it wasn’t until long after the French and American revolutions, as universal suffrage slowly became widespread, that the term “democracy” was re-christened to mean electoral democracy.” Hennig and his foundation say their goal is, “to reclaim democracy and demand real democracy now.”

Writer Michael Schulson wrote in 2014 about how sortition could work in America:

Here’s how sortition works: for any given election, you take the names of every eligible citizen, and you put those names in a very, very big hat. (Note: you don’t have to use a hat, and there are many variations on this method). Then you draw a certain number of names out of the pool. Those are your legislators. It’s democracy by lottery.

For the House of Representatives, for example, we could pull 435 names out of a giant lottery of all American citizens 25 and older, and, voilà: legislators!

You may feel that this is an incredibly stupid idea, but keep two things in mind. First, sortition was the main system for choosing political officials in ancient Athens. As you’ll recall from civics class, Athens was the template, muse, and foundational bedrock for the American Republic. And, second, we already use sortition to select an important deliberative body, the trial jury. Those jury summonses that you get in the mail? Blame the Athenians. …

Sortition rests on two rather unique properties of random sampling. The first of these—which I’ve written about more extensively elsewhere—is that chance is essentially incorruptible, at least until someone rigs your lottery machine. No matter how much money the Koch brothers or Tom Steyer spend, they cannot convince a lottery to choose one person over another. What could be more impartial than chance?

And, second, as your random sample gets larger, you tend to get closer and closer to a sample that mirrors, in almost every respect, the qualities of the entire population. More than any other system, random sampling gives you “an exact portrait of the people at large.” It’s the Law of Large Numbers. (This doesn’t work, of course, for small samples, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to elect a president by lot).

In 2015, Rosenfeld posted a comment on the Kletorian blog saying that Ted Talk videos and other YouTube presentations on sortition are an important way to spread their message. He wrote, “It’s not perfect, but it is accessible to the masses. There needs to be a lot more of this. Most people, even ‘educated’ people, have an extremely short attention span and zero interest in political theory. Media like this could be our best hope,” he wrote.

Rosenfeld also published a lengthy article on sortition and his political views in 2015. You can read Rosenfeld’s full essay on sortition below:

3. Rosenfeld Could Have ‘Claimed the Lives of Innocent Bystanders & Caused Untold Destruction,’ the FBI Says

The FBI said Paul Rosenfeld’s suicide bombing plot could have put people at risk in the National Mall on Election Day.

“As alleged in the complaint, Paul M. Rosenfeld planned to detonate a large explosive to kill himself and draw attention to his radical political beliefs. Had he been successful, Rosenfeld’s alleged plot could have claimed the lives of innocent bystanders and caused untold destruction,” Assistant FBI Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. “Fortunately, his plans were thwarted by the quick action of a concerned citizen and the diligent work of a host of our law enforcement partners and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

Sweeney added, “I’d like to extend particular thanks to our partners with the Orangetown Police Department, the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office, the Rockland County District Attorney, the New York State Police, the New York City Police Department, and the Stony Point Police Department for their respective roles in bring this investigation to a safe conclusion.”

According to the press release, “Mr. Berman praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which consists principally of agents of the FBI and detectives of the New York City Police Department. Mr. Berman also thanked the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office, the Stony Point Police Department, the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office, New York State Police, and the Orangetown Police Department for their valuable assistance.

4. He Has Worked as a Painter & in the Visual Department at Lord & Taylor

According to a now-deleted Linkedin profile, Paul Rosenfeld is a painter and has worked in the visual department at Lord & Taylor in the department store’s painting and decorating division. Rosenfeld has also operated an independent painting and decorating company, offering house painting, custom colors and faux finishes.

Little else is known about Rosenfeld, who has lived in Rockland County for several years. He has lived in Tappan, New York, along with Piermont, New York; Berkley Heights, New Jersey; and Manhattan, public records show.

In an argument on the “Equality by Lot” blog, Rosenfeld wrote, “Call me an elitist if you like but my hands are dirty, I live from paycheck to paycheck and I never went to college. My proletarian credentials are firmly intact. But I do not believe there is a snowball’s chance in hell that a large group of humans (however you select them) is capable of managing itself in a manner consistent with social justice or even rational self-preservation UNLESS there are definite conditions laid out in advance for the management of this body. Otherwise, Nature will take its course; I don’t care if the group is composed of janitors, college professors or even a ‘statistically accurate’ cross-section of the population at large. I am certain that it will end badly.”

He added, “Someday perhaps, if our culture evolves, things might be different. But today this is what we’re stuck with. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. There are certainly many more people in your camp than there are in mine. Therefore, presumably, you must be right.”

5. Rosenfeld Faces Up to 20 Years in Prison if Convicted of the Charges

Paul Rosenfeld faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of charges against him. Unlawfully manufacturing a destructive device and interstate transportation and receipt of an explosive both carry a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison, according to federal law.

It is not known if Rosenfeld has hired an attorney. He remains in federal custody after being arrested October 10, according to prosecutors. He appeared in federal court for the first time Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul E. Davison in White Plains, prosecutors said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said, “This prosecution is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Michael K. Krouse is in charge of the prosecution.”

It is not clear when Rosenfeld is scheduled to appear in court next.

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