The spread of substate and transnational forms of terrorism that target ordinary civilians for mass murder tears at the social and political consensus in our country and across the world. The aim is to create the void that will usher in a new world, with no room for innocents on the other side, or in the “Gray Zone” between that includes most of humanity.
For 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, who killed 22 people and wounded 24 in El Paso earlier this month, terminating the brown invasion of Hispanics that soils White America to the advantage of the Democratic Party requires mass civilian deaths to save civilization—a mission that ISIS shares, albeit with a different, if equally exclusive, end in mind.
The values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical religious ideologies. These seemingly opposed movements, our research team at Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University has found, in fact tacitly collaborate to undermine free and open societies today, much like Fascists and Communists did back in the 1920s and 30s.
The polarization of political cultures generates increased perceptions of exclusion that, however real or imaginary, motivate violent extremism, transforming hitherto normative values that are subject to deliberation, modification, and consensus into non-negotiable “sacred values.” Whether religious (like Sharia law) or secular (like nationhood), defense of such absolute values elicits unconditional devotion and self-sacrifice, and utter unwillingness to compromise.
In a series of behavioral experiments and brain imaging studies carried out in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East with support from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, we found that people who are most willing to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying, to defend or advance a sacred cause avoid deliberative reasoning in harnessing moral outrage.
The results show diminished use of utilitarian calculations of costs and benefits in favor of rapid, duty-bound actions to “set things right,” regardless of apparent risks or likely consequences. Any proposed tradeoffs or concessions generate moral outrage and charges of treason to the cause. In the Americas and Europe, far-right social media now virally ramp up such charges, catching more moderate but sympathetic voices in their web, to attack political leaders who dare to compromise. As a result, our political life undergoes what psychologists call “an extremity shift” that mainstreams radical positions and marginalizes the center.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, the predominant form of apocalyptic terrorism has concerned offensive jihad (“holy war”). Through extreme violence and intimidation, but also via persuasive promotion of absolutist beliefs, the goal is to politically advance a strict and radical form of Islamic governance everywhere chaos reigns or can be created.
In recent years, however, far-right terrorism has risen sharply to more than one-third of terror attacks globally. In the UK, the majority of people put through the government’s “Prevent” deradicalization program are now linked to the far-right. Since 2014, domestic-based attacks in the U.S. outnumber jihadi attacks, with every extremist killing in 2018, and so far in 2019, linked to right-wing ideology or white nationalist supremacism.
Our political leaders and law enforcement recognize that matters are different now than when I asked officials at the FBI in 2010 how right-wing terrorism compared to jihadi terrorism: “After [the 1995] Oklahoma [City bombing] we made sure the far-right groups were covered,” I was told, “we’re on top of it now because we’ve infiltrated them and know what they’re up to.”
Yet far-right supremacist terrorism is still more likely to be overlooked or tolerated by Western polities: because of cultural history and familiarity (the presence of supremacist groups since the Civil War, like the KKK; fascism and Nazism in Europe; and so on); because of legal protections extended to domestic groups; and because individuals who adhere to violent white supremacism need not belong to a hate group in any formal or easily identifiable way.
Thus, in the U.S., media reporting of attacks by Muslims from 2006 to 2015 received 4.6 times more coverage than other attacks (controlling for target type, fatalities, arrests). Although it’s a crime to give material support (including internet hosting) for jihadi groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations, there are legal impediments to monitoring or interfering with domestic extremism online or off, owing to U.S. First and Second Amendment protections of freedom of speech and right to bear arms.
And far-right killers in the U.S. and Europe are somewhat more prone than jihadis to be lone actors, a significant minority of whom have a history of mental disturbance. They are linked by the Internet and social media to loosely-connected networks of the like-minded that are purposely hard to prosecute or target, rather than through organizations as such.
In the U.S., though, even would-be jihadi attackers tend to act alone. This suggests a greater emphasis on prevention measures similar to those focused on rampage shootings, like the Dayton, Ohio attack that killed 9 and wounded 26 people less than 24 hours after El Paso. Such measures would invariably include the control of automatic weapons and mental health screening.
Despite different core values and organizational structures, white supremacists and jihadis have been playing off one another’s tactics to achieve similar ends. In 1980, I met the tall, soft-spoken physicist William Luther Pierce III, when I sought to learn how he had hosted the French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson. By then one of the most persuasive voices of the white supremacist movement, Pierce told me that “evil is the failure to recognize the necessity of race war”; and indeed, he had strategized mass revolt and white nationalist revolution through his group, the National Alliance.
These ideas inspired Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for bombing a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring over 600. Pierce, who died in 2002, described the 9/11 attacks, as the right actions but not necessarily by the right people. In The Turner Diaries written some years prior, he had imagined the book’s hero armed with a nuclear bomb flying into the Pentagon in a final triumph of White will and revolution.
In 1983, Klansman and Aryan Nations member Louis Beam composed “Leaderless Resistance,” a seditionist strategy for white nationalists. It rejected top-down leadership, opting instead for independent groups and individuals acting on their own via inferred rather than direct messaging. This was to prevent authorities from assigning legal responsibility that would enable arresting and prosecuting instigators and followers.
The internet’s advent has greatly enabled this strategy, which Al-Qaeda adopted in its 2004 online tract Call for Global Resistance: “spontaneous operations performed by individuals and cells over the whole world, without connection between them, put local and international intelligence apparatuses in a state of confusion.”
In 2007 Aryan Nations argued for an “Aryan Jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called Western democratic states.” Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, also saw a link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people… the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret.”
As Jews represent the one population that white supremacists and jihadis almost always agree to target, there has been a marked rise in anti-semitic incidents in the West and worldwide: In the US, incidents doubled from 2016 to 2018, whereas from 2017 to 2018 there was a 13 percent increase globally (in France 74 percent and Germany 60 percent).