The revival of white supremacist hate crimes and terror attacks cannot continue. Liam Glen writes on the need for preventative action against hate groups.
“Hate has no place in our country,” said President Trump, who later added, “This is also a mental illness problem,” in reference to two mass shootings over the weekend. One of them took place at a Walmart in majority-Hispanic El Paso, Texas, soon after the suspected gunman posted a white supremacist manifesto online.
This time, the president at least acknowledged hatred as a problem. When asked whether white nationalism is a threat after the Christchurch shootings in March, he said, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
After any white supremacist terror attack, Republican officials change the subject to mental health. It is a persistent talking point because there is some truth to it. Mass murder is not typical of people in their right mind.
Though, any discussion of this topic must come with caveats. The overall relationship between mental illness and violence is complex. In addition, the perpetrators in most of these cases still have full knowledge of their actions. Mental illness does not automatically take away free will.
It is telling, however, when the mental health argument does and does not come up. The perpetrator of the 2016 Nice truck attack had a history of mental instability that long preceded his involvement with any radical ideology. But because he acted the name of jihadism, no one had any problem naming him as a terrorist.
While the term is difficult to define, white supremacist attacks like those in Charleston, Charlottesville, and now El Paso fit the typical criteria of terrorism. They are violent. They target civilians. They seek to further a political agenda.
In addition, they are not aberrations. Over the past eight years, 175 people have been killed in 16 major white supremacist attacks. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1020 hate groups in the US in 2018, the highest number since their records began in 1999. As of the FBI’s latest public statistics in 2017, reported hate crimes have also been growing.
It is clearer than ever that we need to take the problem seriously. What exactly this means is less clear. The most common proposals are to name the problem for what it is – terrorism – and for law enforcement to treat it accordingly.
But we cannot just take a reactive approach. While we do need to ramp up investigation of current hate groups, we also need to prevent them from recruiting new members in the first place. Deradicalization and counter-propagandizing have been key in the war against jihadism, they must also be utilized against white supremacy within the United States.
The Profile of Hate
There is, of course, no excuse for white supremacist beliefs or the violence associated with them. But that does not mean that there is no cause. We cannot combat white supremacy unless we factually investigate why people fall into the ideology.
This will vary by individual and cultural factors. The early iterations of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, integrated themselves into mainstream society. Their ranks were filled by ordinary people upholding the racist social order.
No one can reasonably claim that the US has vanquished racism. But the vast majority
the vast majority of white Americans at least reject open white supremacy.
Accordingly, research shows that hate groups largely appeal to those with antisocial personalities and to disaffected people desperate for social belonging. They find in fringe groups what mainstream society is unable to offer them.
After interviewing former members of violent hate groups, the Research Triangle Institute even concluded that in most cases, “It is only after recruits have been socialized to the group and developed social ties that members are exposed and indoctrinated into the central tenets of organizational hate.”
If one accepts this research, however, it is not clear why the revival in violent white supremacy is happening now. Maybe there are simply more disaffected people today. But there is something very recent that is driving such a large number of them to embrace white supremacy.
The current political situation is an obvious culprit A report by the Anti-Defamation League lays most of the blame on effective online activism by extremist groups and on Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of far-right ideas.
There may also be deeper, underlying causes. The rise of the far-right in other countries shows that the phenomenon is not exclusive to the US. But the modern American right’s conduct certainly has not helped the situation.
President Trump is infamous for stoking racial resentment. Popular commentators like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have explicitly stated that they see America’s growing non-white population as a problem. It wasn’t until Representative Steve King endorsed white nationalism and white supremacy out loud that his Republican colleagues finally denounced him.
Action to Deradicalize
Understanding the causes of white supremacist terror is difficult enough. Combating it will be a complex and multifaceted process.
One part is to prevent the white supremacist message from spreading. Social media sites’ responsibility for hateful conflict on their platforms is controversial. But they already have much stricter policies towards radical Islamist content.
This is also something that ordinary people can have a role in. The common image of anti-fascist organizing is of black-clad, testosterone-filled young men mistaking counterproductive fits of violence with actual activism, but “antifa” tactics can actually be far more sophisticated.
It is necessary to limit hate groups’ reach. But it is even better if we can narrow their pool of potential recruits, or even deradicalize current members. The Obama administration awarded grants to programs that sought to do just this, but Trump quickly defunded them.
Many people are uncomfortable with what seems like a soft response to terrorism. They see white supremacists as irredeemable, any outreach to them as a waste of time. But anyone who wants to eliminate hatred must address its adherents.
As deradicalization expert Daniel Koehler said in an interview with PBS, “Penalizing or arresting our way out of terrorism actually has never worked, never. In no context was a terrorist organization or an extremist ideology defeated by these suppressive measures. If we just put someone in prison for 20 years, they might come out very angry, very frustrated, and very, very radicalized.”