The Dominion Post
One nation under blood
A weekend of mass killing reflects how American violence goes viral, writes Marc Fisher.
In El Paso, Dayton and Chicago, a weekend of horrific gun violence seemed on the surface to be another spasm of disconnected mayhem, people taking the lives of others almost at random. But on closer examination, the attacks served to illustrate how America’s lone wolf shooters aren’t really alone.
Whether the proximate cause was political or personal, whether it grew out of ideological indoctrination, mental illness or some toxic blend of factors that left shooters isolated and damaged, each attack demonstrated a troubling disorder festering in modern America.
The 21-year-old man who allegedly killed 20 people doing their Saturday shopping in El Paso, Texas, appears to have taken pains to post a manifesto that leaned heavily on the virulently antiimmigrant rhetoric that inspired recent mass shootings in New Zealand and California, authorities said – though they were still working to confirm its authenticity.
The suspect, Patrick Crusius, did not appear to be part of any organised group, but the four-page screed posted minutes before he opened fire parroted the extreme white supremacist ideology known as ‘‘the great replacement’’ – the idea that newcomers are taking the jobs of white Christians in America and other Western nations.
The alleged killer of nine people in Dayton, Ohio, Connor Betts, was a 24-year-old Chipotle worker and community college student driven by personal grievance rather than political ideology, authorities said. Betts, who was killed by police, shot his own sister among his victims.
Showing up outside a popular bar around 1am wearing body armour and carrying a highcapacity rifle and extra magazines, the Dayton shooter instantly joined the ranks of gunmen who have learned online, in video games and in countless movies and TV shows how to escalate personal beefs into community-shattering events.
In Chicago, 40 people were shot – three of them fatally – in a series of weekend attacks that authorities attributed to forces that are tragically quotidian in some of the
nation’s roughest neighbourhoods. The shootings revived a longstanding debate over whether such violence might still be happening if the country had resolved its seemingly eternal battles about guns and economic inequality.
The weekend’s violence rekindled an array of other national arguments: over gun rights, over pop culture, over social media and what constitutes terrorism. Amid the overwhelming tragedy of the shootings, the El Paso attack drew special attention to the problem of lone wolf shooters and whether they should be viewed as isolated actors – ‘‘sick people,’’ in the words of White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney – or as part of a larger, ideologically-driven movement.
‘‘These are not single shooters,’’ said Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate, a history of antiimmigrant bigotry in the United States. ‘‘They’re a mob with highpowered rifles, people who feel they’re part of something bigger. The technology has changed: A mob doesn’t have to get together in the street with torches anymore.’’
The manifesto authorities believe is linked to Crusius said his violence was inspired by the killings of 51 people in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, part of a chain of mass slayings linked by the killers’ fears of an invasion that threatened white Christian dominance.
At synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, Jews were the target. In New Zealand, it was Muslims. In El Paso, the manifesto took aim at a Hispanic immigrants. But the underlying belief system – and much of the rhetoric – was the same, lifted, sometimes word for word, from extremist tracts that circulate widely on anonymous online message boards such as 8chan and Reddit.
‘‘Many of the killers are lonewolf losers indoctrinated to hate through the Internet, just like Islamic terrorists,’’ former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein wrote on Twitter late Saturday. ‘‘Killing random civilians to spread a political message is terrorism. FBI classifies it as domestic terrorism, but ‘white terrorism’ is more precise.’’
Whatever label is attached to mass shootings committed by antiimmigrant extremists, they should be viewed not as individual acts but as part of a contagion, said J.M. Berger, a researcher on terrorism and propaganda and author of Extremism.
‘‘Social media allows a lot of people with similar ideological ideas to synchronise their actions,’’ Berger said. ‘‘You’re more likely to commit violence if you know someone who has committed violence. Knowing someone virtually is not that different from knowing them offline, and social media provides a vector for violent contagion to spread. The serial manifestos we’ve seen over the last couple of years serve as a way to ‘know’ someone who has committed violence.’’
The notion that a ‘‘great replacement’’ of whites by some other group is being encouraged by powerful forces is often credited to a French writer, Renaud Camus, who wrote a 2012 book called The Great Replacement. Camus argued that Europe’s white majorities are actively being replaced by immigrants from North and subSaharan Africa, threatening the character, safety and success of European nations.
In 2017, when white supremacist protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, they chanted ‘‘Jews will not replace us’’ and ‘‘You will not replace us.’’ Chatter about the ‘‘great replacement’’ tripled on Twitter between 2014 and 2018, according to a study by a British research group, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Yesterday, Camus denied responsibility for the El Paso shooting but endorsed the ideas Crusius touted in his manifesto.
‘‘It is obviously not The Great Replacement, the book, which causes the mass massacres,’’ Camus wrote on Twitter. ‘‘It is the great replacement itself.’’
But replacement theory did not originate with Camus. Waves of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, antiCatholic and anti-black violence have rolled periodically across America since the early 19th century, reflecting the fear that the livelihoods and communities of those already here were under attack by those just arriving.
‘‘In almost every generation, there’s a generalised fear or anxiety in which the most recent immigrants are seen as taking the jobs of people who’ve been here a longer time,’’ Okrent said.
– Washington Post
‘‘These are not single shooters. They’re a mob with highpowered rifles, people who feel they’re part of something bigger.’’ Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate, a history of antiimmigrant bigotry in the United States.