The rise of white supremacist terrorism
President Trump last week dismissed the idea that white nationalism is a growing international threat in the aftermath of an anti-Muslim massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand that left at least 50 people dead and 50 wounded, some gravely. The shooter, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant of Australia, opened fire at two mosques during midday prayers last week. Shortly before the killings, the shooter published a 74-page manifesto replete with white nationalist talking points and memes, especially the idea of “white genocide,” or the idea that whites are being replaced through immigration and intermarriage. The shooter railed against Muslims and immigrants, describing them as “invaders in our lands.” (See International.) Trump expressed “warmest sympathy and best wishes” to the people of New Zealand without explicitly mentioning the Muslim victims. When asked if he considers white nationalism a growing threat, the president replied, “I don’t really think so. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
In the U.S., far-right terrorists have been responsible for 71 percent of extremist killings since Sept. 11, 2001. Last year was the deadliest for white supremacist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The New Zealand shooter claimed to be inspired by Dylann Roof, the American white supremacist who killed eight black people at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, as well as Anders Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people in 2011. To inspire fellow radicals, the New Zealand shooter live-streamed the carnage to his Facebook page. The social network has since removed 1.5 million copies of the 17-minute video, which at least 200 people watched live. (See Business.)
The shooter also expressed admiration for Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” but derided his skills as a political leader. President Trump railed against the idea that he had anything to do with encouraging white supremacists. “The Fake News Media is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand,” he tweeted. “They will have to work very hard to prove that one. So Ridiculous!”
What the editorials said
President Trump must acknowledge white supremacism “as the worldwide killer that it is,” said The Washington Post. Much like radical Islamism, white supremacy has become a movement that transcends global borders as it spreads its violent ideology online. It needs to be fought by coordinating local, state, and federal government law-enforcement efforts and sharing information globally with our allies. Yet our government still calls right-wing radicalism “domestic terrorism, if it is called terrorism at all.” Incredibly, Trump even shut down an interagency task force on violent right-wing groups.
New Zealand’s response to this tragedy “put us to shame,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. Instead of offering meaningless platitudes and “thoughts and prayers,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised swift action to crack down on semi-automatic assault-style rifles, which remain legal in New Zealand. Ardern’s “quick response is inspiring”—and utterly sensible. After a 1996 mass shooting that left 35 people dead, Australia passed tough new gun laws, including a ban on semi-automatics. There were zero mass shootings for the next 22 years, and gun homicides fell by 50 percent. “It is the lack of response from American leaders that is the outlier.”
What the columnists said
The war on terror should include all forms of terrorism, said Daniel Byman in Slate.com. Western governments should deploy the same tactics against white supremacists that they’ve “honed to a fine edge” against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Yes, “there are noteworthy similarities” between radical Islamists and white supremacists, said Noah Rothman in CommentaryMagazine.com. But the Islamists actually took territory and built their own pseudo country in the form of the Islamic State, which is only now being dismantled. Only the government and the military can smash a sophisticated, well-trained terrorist network like ISIS. Stopping white supremacist loners “is more a societal challenge.”
First, “we have to admit that the American president is an enormous obstacle” to confronting white nationalism, said Christopher Dickey in TheDailyBeast.com. Right-wing extremists have seen the president as an ally ever since he promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.” and praised white supremacists at a neo-Nazi rally as “very fine people.” Last week, just minutes after dismissing the New Zealand massacre as an isolated incident, Trump echoed the shooter’s own rhetoric by calling migrants at the U.S. southern border “invaders.”
Obviously, Trump can’t be blamed for any specific attack, said David Leonhardt in The New York Times, but he’s hardly blameless. Trump last week warned that his supporters in the police, the military, and biker gangs might get “tough” if Democrats try to force him from power, adding that what followed “would be very bad, very bad.” So, we have a president who shrugs at white nationalism and encourages violence. Meanwhile, white nationalist violence is on the rise. Perhaps “that’s just a big coincidence.”
The Christchurch massacre was not an “isolated event,” said Peter Neumann in The Washington Post. German intelligence says there are now about 13,000 “potentially violent right-wing extremists” in Germany—a number that has been steadily increasing. The British government also sees right-wing extremism as a growing threat. In 2016, the pro-Nazi group National Action became the first far-right organization banned under the U.K.’s counterterrorism laws. “White nationalism has been internationalized,” said Jane Coaston in Vox.com. White nationalists around the world have adopted common slogans, cultural references, and hero figures. The manifesto left behind by the New Zealand shooter is disturbingly similar to the online writings of a white nationalist Coast Guard lieutenant in Maryland who was charged in February with plotting attacks on left-wing politicians and media figures. Both men, for example, cite Breivik’s Norway massacre as inspiration. The Christchurch shooter no doubt “hoped to do the same for someone else.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Reuters, AP (2)