White Supremacism Isn’t Insanity

If you want to stop terrorists like New Zealand’s mosque shooter, the first step is to try to understand what they’re saying.

Derek Tait, a biker and pastor prepares to speak to a crowd of people before the haka was performed as a tribute to victims in Christchurch on March 20, 2019, five days after the twin mosque shootings. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
Derek Tait, a biker and pastor prepares to speak to a crowd of people before the haka was performed as a tribute to victims in Christchurch on March 20, 2019, five days after the twin mosque shootings. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not quite right to say the suspect charged with killing 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week was “crazy,” or “mad.” He was not “insane.” He had thought quite clearly about why he did what he did and what he hoped to accomplish, captured in a 74-page manifesto. The arguments and motivations laid out in the document need to be taken seriously and not merely dismissed as the ravings of a fanatic. That’s the only way to reckon with the gravity of what happened and to confront a threat that will be with us for decades to come.

It is reasonable that we would want to cast such an attack outside the realm of rationality, to tell ourselves that expressions of evil are random and unpredictable; it’s the same impulse many had when faced with the brutality and terror of the Islamic State and other jihadi extremists. To rationalize evil as something irrational makes it easier to take on horrifying news. But to do that here would be a mistake.

I won’t link to the accused shooter’s manifesto. But I think it’s important for analysts and government officials to read it carefully. This is what many of us did when the Islamic State would release its recordings and statements. We tried to understand why young Tunisians would travel to Syria to fight in disproportionate numbers for a group that seemed so ostentatious in its savagery. In the process, the analytical and policy community was able to reach a fairly sophisticated understanding of not just the group’s objectives but also of its particular way of looking at the world, including the end times. In dealing with an apparent global rise in violent white supremacism, we may, once again, be obliged to immerse ourselves in a disturbing, sometimes terrifying universe of thought that will, at least at first, seem foreign.

Seventeen years of trying—and often failing—to combat Islamic extremism offers some important lessons, one of which is the importance of contending with, studying, and understanding the ideas that drive extremist sentiment. Even with a group as plainly ideological as the Islamic State, there was often a tendency to de-emphasize its religious motivations and to characterize its aims in more prosaic terms: that it was using Islam for power, rather than the other way around, or that it couldn’t truly believe what it said it believed about its almost unprecedentedly harsh interpretations of Islamic law. Could anyone truly believe that? But apparently they can, and they do.

In reading the accused Christchurch shooter’s 74-page manifesto, it becomes clear that he thought carefully about what he hoped his savagery might accomplish. If we’re thinking about rationality in the instrumental sense of whether ends can plausibly flow from the means, then the killer was at least somewhat rational. Still, this searching for explanations may seem beside the point. Why should it matter why he did what he did if we (almost) all readily acknowledge the sheer evil of the act?

Taking white nationalist ideas seriously, studying how such ideological communities are organized and motivated, suggests a more effective set of responses to the question of violent extremism. I support a strong response to the New Zealand attack. But for too many this seems to involve treating white nationalists—a group that, according to some, includes a sizable chunk of the U.S. Republican Party—the way Islamic extremists have long been treated: as a hostile outside force that must be destroyed. As the Washington Monthly’s David Atkins notes in the wake of the New Zealand shooting: “A number of … pieces across the journalistic spectrum are demanding that the United States government treat white-supremacist terrorism as seriously as it does all other forms of terrorism, making a similar point implicitly if not quite so explicitly.”

Yet a heavy-handed and securitized approach long hobbled the war on jihadi terror, a war made less effective by its apparent permanence. Anyone who was willing to criticize the excesses of that war should be just as willing to criticize the potential excesses of this new war to come.

Already, on the left and anti-Trump right, there are growing calls to treat ethnonationalism as a disqualifying binary, where right-wing populists get lumped in with the Christchurch shooter rather than being seen as on a diverse spectrum of belief. In this reading, anyone with nationalist sympathies becomes a security risk to be treated as a latent threat to civilization.

Sometimes the imprecision in analogy appears to be the very point. In one article, the journalist Khaled Diab alternates between “jihadis,” “Islamist extremists,” “Islamists,” and “radical Islamists,” even though these are all different things. Similarly, he casually switches between “white supremacy,” “far-right,” “Christian far-right,” and “white nationalist.” This leads him to draw a broader observation that the struggle ahead of us is not one between civilizations but within them—“between pluralists and progressives, on the one side, and puritans and fanatics, on the other.” This sounds like the Manichaeism of former U.S. President George W. Bush, but inverted. Sometimes the link between ideas and violent action are clear and inescapable, as Foreign Policy’s Sasha Polakow-Suransky and Sarah Wildman write, but those links should be demonstrated and not merely assumed.

During the West’s extended war against jihadism, many of us implored policymakers to think more broadly about the grievances, policy failures, and other drivers that made acts of violence more likely. It wasn’t enough to say that “they hate us for who we are,” even when they did. Some of the grievances that Osama bin Laden and his associates cited (however cynically)—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. support for dictators, and debilitating sanctions inflicted upon Iraqis—did not become illegitimate merely because they were uttered by a terrorist. And, for a time, the fact that extremists cited grievances that many ordinary Arabs and Muslims shared helped build up a reservoir of sympathy and even support for groups such as al Qaeda.

Just as it was with Islamic extremism, it is advisable to dismiss the grievances of white nationalists that are silly or conspiratorial but less so to dismiss the ones that reflect something real. In one section of the manifesto, the shooter cites seven factors that contribute to “radicalization.” Not only are some of them not untrue, but they would also probably draw agreement across the political spectrum, such as the “loss of worker rights,” “environmental degradation,” and the “collapse of Christianity.” We might wish it weren’t so, but these three things may very well make radicalization more likely, all other things being equal. In some sense, they already have.

Of course, to even discuss the manifesto’s contents can seem like conceding too much too soon, but it doesn’t need to. Those of us who focus on Islamic extremism would do just the same with the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s statements, speeches, and documents. Contrary to how it may sound, to think seriously about the grievances that terrorists draw strength from is not to do “what the terrorists want” but rather what they don’t want. The shooter wants to encourage and exacerbate radicalization, and he believes that his act of killing, and other acts like it, hold the potential to plunge the rest of us into disarray and incoherence. This is precisely the purpose of terrorism: to compel the target country or target population to behave in a way it otherwise wouldn’t. The goal of these new radicals is to “heighten the contradictions” and to facilitate a decline that they believe is inescapable. The alleged shooter writes, for instance, that he carried out the attack “to add momentum to the pendulum swings of history, further destabilizing and polarizing Western society.” This polarization, as we see and feel daily, is already underway.

As a Muslim living in a Western democracy that appears increasingly at odds with itself, what the killer did feels personal to me. I am trying, however, to separate my feelings, and that sense of foreboding that seems to hover right by us, from the analysis of what happened. I don’t think there will be anything resembling a resolution to this, whatever this is. I think polarization is likely to intensify, the very outcome that the shooter himself hoped for. This is what he wants, and he may have it in the end, but I pray that we can resist it. Such resistance, though, will require the sort of response that we have, at least up until now, shown ourselves ill-equipped for.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.