White Supremacy Has Triggered a Terrorism Panic

The collective response to white nationalism has swung wildly from complacency to terrified myth-making.

About 20 members and supporters of Confederate heritage groups, including CSA II: The New Confederate States of America and the Virginia Task Force of Three Percenters or the 'Dixie Defenders,' face off with about 100 counter protesters at the Jefferson Davis Monument August 19, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia.
About 20 members and supporters of Confederate heritage groups, including CSA II: The New Confederate States of America and the Virginia Task Force of Three Percenters or the 'Dixie Defenders,' face off with about 100 counter protesters at the Jefferson Davis Monument August 19, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Our collective response to terrorism seems to swing on a pendulum between rank complacency and terrified myth-making. In January 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama dismissed the Islamic State as al Qaeda’s “JV team.” But by September of that year, after the group had captured Mosul in Iraq and launched a genocidal campaign of slaughter against the Yazidis, he started bombing it. Within the year, the Western news media was awash with alarmist stories about how the Islamic State spectacle would soon be playing in a town near you. It wasn’t just that some balaclava-clad ninja-jihadi might kill you; it was that he’d gaslight your teenage daughter into ditching her studies and becoming a jihadi baby-making machine. Whole reports and toolkits were published to help teachers spot signs of extremism.

A similar dynamic can be observed in the case of white supremacy today. For a long time, governments and the media had slept on this threat, largely because they were so animated by the jihadi threat. That all changed in March, when an Australian right-wing extremist slaughtered 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooter livestreamed his atrocity on the internet and beforehand had posted a 74-page manifesto in which he rationalized his massacre as a protest against “the great replacement”—the notion that Muslims, in concert with liberal multiculturalists, are seeking to erase white European culture.

In an historic move last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signaled in no uncertain terms that it is now fully awakened to the threat of white supremacist terrorism, describing it as “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.” This is right and laudable and, as the author Colin P. Clarke recently noted, well overdue. But, just as many liberal leftists had earlier warned against the perils of overreacting to the threat of jihadi terrorism, we ought to maintain a sense of proportion and not overinflate the threat of white supremacist terrorism.

Yet in the inferno of online commentary that followed the Christchurch attack, there was much posturing but very little balance. Within days of the atrocity, online news sites were ablaze with stories sounding the alarm about the rising threat of white nationalism and how it was now a truly global phenomenon. Many terrorism experts who’d spent the best part of the last four years preoccupied with the jihadi threat concurred with this. And a whole coterie of left-leaning observers, almost overnight, discovered that ideology really does matter after all. As the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood acidly pointed out, “Four years ago, commentators were contorting themselves to attribute jihadism to politics, social conditions, abnormal psychology—anything but the spread of wicked beliefs that lead, more or less directly, to violence.” But now, having been royally mugged by ideology, they were hellbent on calling it out and hunting it down.

Soon, white supremacy and the germ of Islamophobia were everywhere: not just in the White House but in the thinking and commentary of public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. In the New York Times, Omer Aziz came close to accusing Peterson and Harris of complicity in the Christchurch mass murder, based on their misgivings about the term “Islamophobia.”

In August, two weeks after the El Paso massacre that left 22 people dead, Veronica Escobar, a Democratic representative from Texas, wrote that America was in the grip of a “hate epidemic.” Like the Christchurch killer, the El Paso terrorist posted a manifesto on the internet, spelling out that “[t]his attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Almost immediately, story after story appeared on the global scope of white nationalist terrorism. There was also a whole lot of viral commentary on how white nationalists were weaponizing the internet to spread their hate and radicalize young white males. Just over a week after the El Paso mass murder, a Los Angeles-based writer, Joanna Schroeder, posted the following tweet: “Do you have white teenage sons? Listen up. I’ve been watching my boys’ online behavior & noticed that social media and vloggers are actively laying groundwork in white teens to turn them into alt-right/white supremacists.” This tweet amassed 181,000 likes and was retweeted 81,000 times.

In subsequent tweets, Schroeder described a process by which white boys are indoctrinated into the ideology of white supremacy. “First, the boys are inundated by memes featuring subtly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic jokes. … Then they’re called out for these jokes/phrases/memes by parents, teachers, kids (mostly girls) at school & online.” According to Schroeder, this calling to account makes the boys indignant and even more susceptible to “the ‘people are too sensitive’ and ‘you can’t say anything anymore!’ themes.” This is the “second step” toward their radicalization, she said. Schroeder went on to identify “an early red flag” in this process: “[I]f your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!” Schroeder also posted a link to a story titled “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right,” which was every bit as alarmist as the one published in the New York Times on the lonely and troubled 23-year-old American woman who had “flirted” with the Islamic State but who had not gone there nor committed any terrorism-related offences.

A few days after Schroeder’s Twitter thread, the BBC ran a story on it, headlined “How I stopped my teenager being recruited online.” Yet the only evidence cited in the article and by Schroeder that her sons had been targeted by far-right extremists was that they had used the term “triggered” in reference to liberal sensitivities and had seen online memes that were “subtly” hateful. In other words, there was no evidence to substantiate the story, but there was plenty of damning material to suggest that Schroeder was unable to differentiate between a murderous ideology that justifies and calls for the murder of nonwhite others and viewpoints that are critical of liberal pieties.

As with all classic witch hunts, the shape of the devil is often deceptive and can appear where you least expect it. According to a recent Vice report, “white nationalism, anti-Semitism and misogyny are creeping into … classrooms, often coded in ironic memes and symbols unfamiliar to most adults.” One such symbol is reportedly the “OK” sign, which has been co-opted by white supremacists. In response, the Western States Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization, has produced a 50-page toolkit to help teachers spot and address extremism in the classroom. The website from which the toolkit can be purchased for $10 states that schools “have become battlegrounds for extremist organizing and recruitment sites for white nationalist groups targeting young people.”

In recent weeks, some journalists and experts have sought to suggest that not only is far-right extremism just as dangerous as the jihadi threat but that it has all but morphed into the jihadi threat. For example, Max Fisher in the New York Times wrote, “The ideological tracts, recruiting pitches and radicalization tales of the Islamic State during its rise echo, almost word-for-word, those of the white nationalist terrorists of today.” There are indeed some striking parallels between both factions. But the differences between their ideologies are still vast and far more meaningful than the similarities.

First, there are qualitative differences: Most notably, white supremacist groups do not draw inspiration and momentum from a culture of religious martyrdom. They do not believe that mass murder is a ticket to divine salvation. They do not kill to die.

Second, there are quantitative differences: White supremacists are not networked in the same way that jihadis are and nor do they have a legion of veteran combatants to help inspire and guide terrorist plots. Sure, and as the author Ali Soufan has testified, they have the war in eastern Ukraine, just as “jihadis had Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s and Syria today.” But, as the scholar Kacper Rekawek told me via email, just 35 Americans have gone to the Ukraine to fight, and “not all [of the 440 Westerners who are there] are far-right or white supremacist.” (In the U.K. alone, some 850 people traveled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.)

None of this is to suggest that the threat of white supremacy is not real or that we should be complacent about it. Of course it is real, and of course we need to indict and seriously punish those who have committed or are plotting to commit terrorist atrocities in the name of white supremacy. But we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. One of the lessons of the last few years is that the media frenzy that surrounded every attack inspired or directed by the Islamic State in the West helped create the group’s monstrosity, feeding it and provoking it to carry out ever more monstrous acts. Another lesson is that focusing on so-called signs of extremism—in the form of what people say, what music they listen to, or how they dress—is a surefire way of antagonizing them. It is also deeply illiberal.

No doubt we all love the spectacle of a mythical monster against which to signal our moral virtue and to wax indignant about with our fellows. But we should resist the urge to do this, since it plays directly into the hands of the few who want nothing more than to be talked about and make the world mad with rage. White supremacy is not a monolith endangering our children and societies, but we might just make it into one by overinflating it into precisely this.

Simon Cottee is senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.

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