Port: Man who ax attacked Sen. Hoeven's office doesn't seem a bit sorry

An existential problem in modern American politics, one that is a danger to our republic, is a growing willingness to abandon, like so many looters piling into a department store, the peaceful political process in favor of violence and vicious rhetoric.

Thomas Starks

MINOT, N.D. — If we were to legalize homicide, removing from the action all legal consequences, who is the first person you'd murder?

Your answer is almost certainly "nobody." Because you are not a murderer. You do not refrain from killing because it is illegal, but because it is unethical and immoral.

We tend to have a backward notion of our society's relationship to the law, assuming that our codes and statutes dictate behavior and not the other way around. In practice, the law provides after-the-fact repercussions for actions our society, through the political process, has deemed unacceptable. Whatever crime prevention the law provides is through the forbearance of the criminally inclined who do not wish to chance those repercussions.

Most of us refrain from crime because it's not in keeping with our values and the law, in a society like ours that is based upon the consent of the governed, reflects our values.

But what happens when large factions of society abandon those values?


I was thinking about that over my Thanksgiving holiday vacation while reading stories about stores being mobbed by thieves in communities from California to Minnesota. The Wall Street Journal describes them as "organized retail thefts," and they involve sometimes dozens of people piling into a store for a smash-and-grab. These retail establishments have security measures that work well against shoplifters in small groups.

Unfortunately, those measures can be easily overwhelmed when people commit to larceny en masse.

There is little we can do to stop large numbers of people, having abandoned their fidelity to our society's values, from flagrantly violating the law.

My mind also turned to Thomas “Tas” Alexander Starks , a man from Lisbon, North Dakota, who got only probation and a $2,784 fine for taking an ax to the office of Sen. John Hoeven in Fargo.


Since his conviction, Mr. Starks, per his social media profile, has been completely unrepentant. In late October, posting under the pseudonym Paul Dunyan (perhaps a reference to Paul Bunyan, the ax-wielding figure from American lore) he mocked the FBI for returning to him the ax he used in the attack.

Included in the photo is a logo with the stylized initials "NPL," a reference to the "Nonpartisan League." The NPL was a far-left political movement in that eventually merged with what is now the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party .

Left-wing activists, including Starks , have begun to organize under the NPL banner again in recent years.

What's interesting about Starks is not just the kid-gloves treatment he got from the federal court for his violence directed at a member of Congress, and his laugh-it-off attitude post-conviction, but rather the support he received from mainstream North Dakota political figures.

Kylie Oversen , who was at the time the chair of the Democratic-NPL, donated to a GoFundMe campaign for Starks' legal defense . Ellie Shockley , at the time a member of the Democratic-NPL's executive committee, and Ellen Chaffee , a former statewide candidate for the Democratic-NPL, also contributed funds.

These people have claimed that they didn't condone Starks' actions, yet when he returned to Facebook under a pseudonym to mock his conviction and make extreme political statements, among his friends was Shockley.


Also Sen. Tim Mathern , a Democrat from Fargo, Jenna Vanhorne, a Democratic-NPL legislative candidate last year in District 14, Kathrin Volochenko, a Democratic-NPL legislative candidate last year from District 8, David Thompson , a Democratic-NPL candidate for Attorney General in 2018, Mark Haugen , Democratic-NPL candidate for Treasurer last year, and Rep. Zachary Ista , a Democrat from Grand Forks.

You can still see them listed as friends Starks now-defunct profile (taken down, it seems, after his post-conviction posts attracted some national media attention ).

Just about all of us are Facebook friends with people prone to saying intemperate things about politics, but Starks took an ax to a political office, enjoyed financial support from prominent Democrats, and the post-conviction social media friendship of more prominent Democrats as he used the platform to make light of his crime.

An existential problem in modern American politics, one that is a danger to our republic, is a growing willingness to abandon, like so many looters piling into a department store, the peaceful political process in favor of violence and vicious rhetoric.

The Democrats are doing it. They've supported violent pipeline protests. The excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. And, at least tacitly, the vandalism committed by Mr. Starks.

The Republicans who, with only a few exceptions, harbor a steadfast refusal to the Trump movement responsible for the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, are doing it too. On any given day you can tune in to conservative talk radio host Scott Hennen and hear him hawking pillows for election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell .


It has to stop.

We have to get off this road, and the only way that's going to happen is if liberals and conservatives and every other participant in American politics expect better from their side's activists and elected figures.

To that end, this is what the Democratic-NPL told me when I reached them for comment about Starks and his wide-ranging support from North Dakota Democrats: "As far as I can tell, the person in question has never been an active member of the Democratic-NPL or served in any role with the Democratic-NPL," said Laura Dronen, communications director for the Democratic-NPL, in an emailed statement. "The Dem-NPL strongly believes in the right to peacefully assemble, and express one's beliefs, but we unequivocally condemn any violence, threats of violence, or actions that only serve to further divide our communities - regardless of ideology. The Dem-NPL believes that the way to make positive change is through positive engagement. The Party does not control nor do we comment on how people spend their private money, that is their business for them to address."

That sure seems like a dodge to me. The exact sort of ducking of our collective duty to expect better that is allowing political extremism in America to flourish.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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