Bottom line up front:
- The conventional wisdom that ideology plays the key role in radicalizing domestic terrorists is called into doubt by a study of the motivations claimed for recent attacks. In at least one case, Dayton, the motivating anger was actively mitigated against by the shooter’s proclaimed ideology, but the attack happened anyway. In other cases, it isn’t clear that the shooters had adopted a fully considered ideology at all.
- Concerns that any of these incidents represent a form of “fascism” are misplaced. Fascism is about building tight bonds that turn individuals into units; all of these terrorists were constitutionally incapable of such bonds, did not seek any and could not build any.
- Unlike genuinely ideological or fascist threats, which could threaten the survival of the United States, these kinds of terrorists do not pose an existential threat — unless they provoke the American people into turning on each other. Mitigating political divisions and finding ways to live together peacefully (in spite of genuine, deeply-felt differences) is the main way to mitigate that single existential risk.
- Mitigating the remaining risks posed by this breed of terrorist probably can be done with minimal disruption to American society as a whole, as they do have a clear profile. They are young adult males who have difficulty forming or maintaining social relationships during a short period of young adulthood. There are a number of approaches, from the philosophical and social to the medical, that can be brought to bear to try to integrate them more effectively; if those approaches fail, non-responsive individuals can be addressed more aggressively.
One of my less pleasant duties at the Security Studies Group is reviewing the writings of domestic terrorists. It can nevertheless be an interesting duty. In general it may be best not to spread widely the various manifestos and writings that we encounter from these people, because you never know when they might inspire another who feels similar things. It may also be that a motivating factor for some shooters is something like fame, which means that naming them is unwise. However, someone has to read their writings because, as Sun Tzu points out, victory is most assured when you know your enemy and also yourself.
Without posting links to these materials or naming the shooters, then, I do want to take a moment to lay out some findings. I am writing about the attacks in Christchurch, NZ; in Gilroy, CA; in El Paso, TX; and in Dayton, OH. Though I am treating them together they are not tokens of a type, or elements of a movement. Each one is alone, fragmentary, alike only in the manifestation of violence. Their reasoning, and their reasons, are not the same.
What that means is that — even though the Christchurch shooter described himself as an ‘eco-fascist’ — these are not plausibly elements of a resurgent fascism. (The Security Studies Group condemns fascism, as in this essay; also white nationalism, as here.) Fascists are by definition movements of unity, not movements of loners. The symbol is the fasces, an ancient Roman weapon and badge of office made out of a bundle of sticks. The idea is that each stick is frail individually, easily broken; but when tied all together into a bundle, they become strong. This was meant as a symbol of the Roman republic’s strength, which came from the unity of the people. Fascist movements in the Modern era affect uniforms, salutes and rituals, slogans, things that bind them together. They are not loners, and anyone who cannot fit into such a tightly-knit organization will not survive even should they try to join one.
All four of these recent terrorist attacks — if indeed they are even all properly characterized as terrorist attacks, though at least Christchurch certainly was — were carried out by loners. They represent a real threat, but it needs to be understood differently from the threat posed by fascism.
The Christchurch shooter is unique in having a fully-considered ideology. None of the American shooters as yet appears to have, although all of them had political ideas. The difference between having political ideas and having an ideology is that an ideology provides both a vision of the Good, and a method for getting there. Maoism, for example, provides a vision of the Good in the form of a perfectly egalitarian Communist society; the means for getting there is often violent and destructive, but it is also reasoned. Mao wiped out rural farmers in the Great Leap Forward by forcing them to melt down their farming implements into ingots for industrial production. The resulting famine, which killed tens of millions of China’s own population, reduced China’s need to continue to sustain its ancient agricultural system. The deaths themselves served a purpose in helping China transition to an industrial economy, a precondition in Marx’s analysis for attaining socialism. The ingots were merely an accidental bonus along the way.
The Christchurch shooter has a vision of the good, and a means of getting there. His vision of the good is a world of nations organized around the defense of ethnic nationalities. (Not ironically, the People’s Republic of China is his stated favorite model: for all its Communist rhetoric, the PRC is really an ethno-state organized around the Han Chinese majority’s supremacy.) He exercises surprising clarity in his categories: he is not a supremacist, he says, because he does not really believe that one ethnic group is better than another. He just believes that all of humanity will be happier if it lives in strong communities with a similar cultural and genetic heritage. He also favors a strong ecological defense, so that humanity will live in these nations within the context of a clean and desirable world.
His method for getting there is a kind of violence carefully selected to heighten existing conflicts in society. This is similar to but different from the Marxist revolutionary notion of ‘heightening the contradictions,’ because the Marxists had a mode of social analysis that explained how a society could have ‘contradictions.’* He chose Muslims not because of special animus towards Muslims, but because they were the best target to attain his aim of heightening a conflict in his society.
Similarly, and following Sun Tzu’s dictum precisely, he chose to execute the attack with semi-automatic firearms precisely in order to drive a political crisis in the United States. He spells this out explicitly in his work, and even so his understanding of his enemy was so solid that we have not been able to avoid the crisis he sought to provoke. His ability to create this crisis in spite of carrying out an attack on the other side of the world, and having explicitly warned us that he was trying to do just this, is a testament to the care with which he constructed his ideology.
Nevertheless, it is his ideology. He was alone. If there are others like him, they are united only by spidery internet chats, isolated in different places around the world. They are not a movement, and could not sustain themselves in protracted conflict with any organized society. As the Christchurch shooter realized, psychological warfare to turn us against each other is the only real method available to such unhappy loners.
The Dayton shooter had political opinions, strong ones apparently, but was not fully ideological. He was a socialist, radical enough to have carried guns as an armed member of Antifa (“antifascist”), but his preferred political candidate was Elizabeth Warren. Warren has some ideas that are probably unworkable, but she is well within the mainstream of American political thought.
The shooter in Dayton had enough internal conflicts that it is probably not politics driving his attack at all. For example, in spite of his support for a female Presidential candidate, he appears to have had severe anger issues towards women. A former girlfriend of his describes him as possessed of violent fantasies, and creepy, controlling behavior towards her. He also murdered his own sister in the shooting, though the former girlfriend says he liked his sister.
Socialism, in spite of its many flaws, does have a clear commitment to equality for women. Attachment to ideology, insofar as it was present, motivated the shooter to actively endorse empowering a woman as President, and thus to assume political power over himself. If ideology were the key motivator in these kinds of attacks, one would expect this aspect of socialism to have mitigated against violence against women. However, it did not do so: not only did the attack occur, but the pattern of behavior over years occurred. Ideology not only did not drive the attack, ideology could not stop it.
The former girlfriend described the shooter as not a thorough planner, and not a highly-motivated person. The contrast with the Christchurch shooter could not be clearer. He was, however, also a loner. He was deeply troubled by mental health issues, and appears to have had difficulty maintaining relationships. There is no danger of people like this forming an organized movement that could threaten the stability of our society, but they are individually dangerous.
Like the Christchurch shooter, the El Paso shooter formulated a manifesto. Unlike the Christchurch shooter, however, he lacks a proper ideology because he lacks both a goal (“the Good”) and a method. The El Paso shooter is chiefly angry about what he sees as bad things, whereas the Christchurch shooter has ideals about the good to be attained for all of humanity.
There is also a profound overlap in the El Paso manifesto between competing ideologies that is not fully integrated. The El Paso shooter endorses not only xenophobia but also weaves in support for the three major socialist ideas in play in American political discourse: universal basic income, universal national healthcare, and an aggressive environmental approach similar to the Green New Deal in its scale. There is nothing inherently wrong with adopting what you take to be good ideas from both the left and right; the point is that he does not seem to have a careful view of what right looks like.
He also did not have a careful view of his method. He appears to have been motivated by impulse rather than planning throughout, up to and including not having selected his target with any care. One report is that he stopped at that particular WalMart because ‘he got hungry,’ which is to say that it was a target of opportunity rather than what a military planner would call a primary or secondary target. Though he may have decided to go ahead and attack the target because he saw a number of people of apparently Mexican ancestry, he was careless about whom he shot, one of whom was a German national. This also differs from the Christchurch shooter, who carefully selected his target and executed his attack in a manner designed to heighten the divisions by being a clear case of violence against only one kind of person.
Once again, however, we do see that the El Paso shooter was a loner without a capacity for building strong and lasting relationships. He seems to have had a lingering kind of explicit racism — he described a classmate of Egyptian ancestry as having an urge to join ‘the Taliban,’ which is unreasonable given the Afghan/Egyptian distinction; the classmate went on to serve honorably in the United States military instead. The El Paso shooter wasn’t, though, constitutionally capable of anything like ‘fascism.’ He never attempted to forge close relationships or to build or join a tightly-knit band of any sort.
Initial reports that the Gilroy shooter was motivated by an ideology followed a post from Instragram, which used racist language and cited an 1890 text that is variously characterized as “white supremacist”; “anarcho-socialist” and anti-Christian (one chapter is subtitled “Jesus, the True Prince of Evil”); or a satirical send-up of the Nietzschean and Darwinian natural selection theories that were popular in 1890. However, the FBI’s investigation has caused them to doubt the hypothesis that he was especially motivated by this work, and FBI agents have publicly cautioned the media against such interpretations. FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett stated that there was also “erroneous and incorrect” media speculation about Islamist motivations the suspect (of mixed Iranian ancestry) must have had.
In fact it appears that the shooter was exploring a number of competing extremist ideologies, as if shopping for a justification for his anger. It is not clear that he found one, or that he needed one. During the event, someone shouted to ask why he was shooting; he replied, simply and apparently honestly, “I’m really angry.”
The investigation reveals a similarity with the El Paso shooter in that, insofar as plans were made, they were not carried out with any care. A “high profile target list” was discovered, but the shooting was an apparently-impulsive one at a local garlic festival. No pattern in victim selection is apparent: FBI Agent Craig Fair reports that “[w]e have no reason to believe at this point he was targeting any protected characteristics or any class.” The shooter took the trouble to obtain a bulletproof vest, but left it at home.
There is very little personal information available about the shooter in the open sources. A teacher says he wasn’t one of the bad kids; he is said to have been quiet. He had brothers. His family is shocked. Assuming the truth of these reports, it appears that he kept his inner conflicts completely internal. He was so isolated emotionally that no one knew how angry he was inside.
Several recommendations fall out of this analysis.
- The only one of these shooters to have a fully-considered ideology focused on driving Americans apart. We are fulfilling his design if we move to attack one another rather than focusing on the specific threat he and his kind may pose.
- “His kind” is a fringe of a fringe: individuals neither part of a movement nor capable of forming a movement, connected if at all only by tenuous internet links. Because they are incapable of a movement or an organization they cannot by themselves pose an existential threat to the United States.
- For this reason, solutions should focus on the fringe aspect of this threat, rather than targeting the American population globally. For example, trying to restrict free speech so as to eliminate ‘hate speech’ targets Americans globally. Such a global imposition on American rights raises tensions between Americans, which works to fulfill the terrorist design. All solutions need to focus on the fringe.
- Gun control solutions especially should be local rather than state- or national-level. That is a specific wedge the terrorist in Christchurch wanted to drive, which he accurately saw as political high-explosive. Let America’s diverse views exist, rather than trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on the whole nation. That will disarm the political bomb he was attempting to light.
- Mental health solutions should focus on isolation. People draw whatever meaning they find in this world principally from their relationships. Those who have difficulty forming or sustaining relationships are the ones who are likely to lash out in this way. Finding ways to connect to the isolated will be more helpful than anything else. Identifying those who are incapable of human connection will identify the dangerous fringe from which these terrorists draw themselves.
- Ideology can only be a solution in cases like Christchurch, where a clear ideology exists in the shooter. Engaging on ideology in other cases won’t help because ideology wasn’t what was really driving them. The Dayton shooter shows that: even where his ideology clearly opposed what he was doing, he did it anyway.
Those are my conclusions after a week of research. I hope they will be helpful to those who are trying to stop such things from continuing to occur.
* Strictly logically no society could ‘have contradictions,’ since contradictions cannot actually exist in the real world. To speak this way you have to adopt a less logical concept of ‘contradiction’ rooted in Hegel’s philosophy, as adapted by Marx. In Hegelian philosophy, contradictions of this sort are good, because they force a conflict in your mind that enables you to make the next leap to higher consciousness. For Marx, such conflicts were supposed to drive progress to higher levels of social organization. This doesn’t prove to work, because of the falsity of Marx’s assumption from Hegel that there was a pre-existing path of progress that merely needed to be realized. In fact that is not the case, thus forcing a ‘contradiction’ often just produces conflict and misery rather than progress.