It’s Time to Declare War on White-Nationalist Terrorism

A police officer after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
We need all the tools we can muster — legal, rhetorical, financial, and cultural.

It’s time to face some dreadful, terrible facts. The United States is now facing a deadly challenge from a connected, radical, online-organizing community of vicious white-nationalist terrorists. They are every bit as evil as jihadists, and they radicalize in much the same way. And just like the ISIS terrorists our nation and our allies have confronted in the great cities of the West, they use the most modern of tools to advance the oldest of hatreds.

America has faced waves of white-supremacist terror in the past, and there are always at least some, few extremists lurking in the dark corners of American life. We’ve come to expect the occasional act of white-supremacist violence, and we’ve sometimes explained it away as the last spasm of a dying bigotry.

Beginning in 2015, however, it became apparent to those who had eyes to see that our nation was starting to experience a new youth movement of hate. The Charleston church massacre was followed by a strange — and for those who experienced it — terrifying wave of bizarre online racist harassment. The word “alt-right” entered the American lexicon.

It targeted Jews, it targeted African Americans and Hispanics, and it targeted critics of Donald Trump. It obsessed over immigrants from south of the border. It used words like “invasion” to describe immigration, and words such as “replacement” to describe the imagined fate of white America. It thrilled to Trump’s rhetoric, and parts of Trump’s movement loved it right back. No less a figure than Steve Bannon, the man who became Trump campaign CEO and later a senior White House aide, boasted that Breitbart (then one of the most trafficked sites in conservative media) had become the “platform of the alt-right.”

Critics who sounded the alarm about the alt-right were often mocked. You just didn’t get it. They were “trolls.” They were doing it for the “lulz.” In the meantime, their targets hired security when they could afford it, carried guns when they couldn’t, and got used to living on edge.

Then, the “trolls” found their way into the real world. In 2017, a young man drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. One of the “trolls” — connected to other trolls across the globe — armed himself, slaughtered worshippers in two New Zealand mosques, and filmed the attack. He posted a rambling manifesto to an online message board called 8chan.

The next month, a young man in California armed himself, posted his own 8chan manifesto, and tried to slaughter worshippers in a California synagogue. And yesterday, another young man posted another 8chan manifesto and committed a mass murder in El Paso, Texas.

And if you think that’s the sum total of white-supremacist violence, you’re sadly mistaken. Most Americans remember the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. Do you remember the white supremacist who killed a black man in New York with a sword? Do you remember the attempted church massacre in Kentucky, where a white supremacist who couldn’t gain access to the church gunned down two black victims at a Kroger grocery story instead? Do you remember that a member of an “alt-Reich” Facebook group stabbed a black Maryland college student to death without provocation, or that a white man in Kansas shouted ethnic slurs before shooting two Indian engineers in a bar, killing one?

Substitute “jihadist” for “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” and then imagine how we’d act. Imagine how we’ve acted.

It’s time to declare war on white-nationalist terrorism. It’s time to be as wide awake about the dangers of online racist radicalization as we are about online jihadist inspiration. And it’s time to reject the public language and rhetoric that excites and inspires racist radicals. Just as we demanded from our Muslim allies a legal and cultural response to the hate in their midst, we should demand a legal and cultural response to the terrorists from our own land.

To say that it’s time to declare war does not mean it’s time to repeal the Constitution. Nor does it mean droning a young man in his mom’s basement in Des Moines. It means treating online white-nationalist radicals exactly the way we treat online jihadist sympathizers.

The FBI is hardly passive. Last month, FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress that the FBI had made “about 90” domestic terror arrests in the last nine months, and a “majority” are motivated by “white-supremacist violence.” Aside from making “domestic terrorism” a federal crime (federal terrorism crimes focus on international terrorism), the federal response is mainly one of resource allocation. It’s time to shake free greater resources from the Department of Justice, with greater emphasis in its myriad joint terrorism task forces on the white-nationalist threat.

And we can’t forget the mass-shooting element of white-nationalist terror. We’ll learn more about the El Paso terrorist (and the more-mysterious Dayton shooter) in the coming days, but we know from all too many previous mass shootings that these vile murderers not only often give warning signs but that the legal tools to help a person in obvious psychological distress are often inadequate.

After the Parkland school shooting, I advocated a form of gun control called a “gun-violence restraining order,” also known as a “red-flag law.” Essentially, they allow designated individuals (family members, employers, educators) to file a request in court for an order temporarily removing firearms from a dangerous individual. Properly drafted, they provide for due process and require compelling, admissible evidence. The great virtue of these laws is that they’re focused on individual misconduct, not on (ineffective) collective punishment of the vast law-abiding majority of gun-owners.

But law enforcement isn’t enough. Targeted gun control isn’t enough. Culture matters. Since 9/11 we have asked that Muslim leaders not just condemn terrorism but reject the extremist ideologies and extremist rhetoric that inspire and energize jihadists.

Why? It’s too simple to say that anti-Semitic or anti-American rhetoric causes violence. After all, the number of people who commit acts of violence is still a tiny proportion of those who are exposed to hateful speech. No, it’s a bit more complex than that.

Members of a radicalized underground often work diligently to introduce their themes and ideas into public discourse. They want to kill, yes, but they also want to change the culture. When national leaders use their rhetoric or adopt their themes, it is thrilling. It is energizing. It is inspiring to the movement. It tells them that they just might win.

Think of the thrills, energy, and inspiration they’ve experienced from the highest office in the land — and from parts of the most popular cable network in the land — since Trump came down the escalator in 2015. His announcement speech cast immigrants collectively as dangerous and deficient, with only “some” exceptions. He has used the language of invasion frequently, even to the point of invoking a military response:

Voices on Fox News have even said that migrant caravans carried with them the threat of importing smallpox (a disease that’s been eradicated for decades) and leprosy to the United States:

Or, migrants are responsible for spreading a “polio-like” disease is that is paralyzing our children:

Alt-right support for Trump wasn’t random. It wasn’t arbitrary. It was directly related to his rhetoric, and it was cultivated by his allies, and it was cultivated in part because it was a new way to fight, to punch back against the hated Left.

We can and should debate proper levels of immigration, including debating more immigration restrictions, without using the exact language and exact claims that energize and inspire an actual racist terrorist movement. But somehow all too many Americans have convinced themselves that the only way to “fight” is to use language that is deliberately designed to stoke fear and rage — that pushes the envelope with the express purpose of enraging our opposition.

Tell people we face an invasion often enough, and some people will act according to the ordinary meaning of that term. The El Paso shooter called immigration an invasion, and he responded in the way that people historically respond to “invasions” — with armed force.

Political rhetoric is often rough. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” as the saying goes. But when a nation experiences the wave of mass killings, threats, harassment, and radicalization we see now, it’s time for American leaders to respond with unequivocal, relentless messages not just of condemnation for racists but also with their own words of reconciliation and national unity.

And that does not mean surrendering a single rational, good-faith argument about proper levels of immigration. We can and should view each and every immigrant as a person created in the image of God, but that does not mean that each and every person should be entitled to enter this country. It’s worth saying 10,000 times: Fighting for your political values does not ever require you to abandon decency and respect. In fact, given the magnitude of the issues at stake, decency is even more urgent. It helps keep emotions under control.

And if you think the obligation of decency runs only one way, think again. While we don’t yet know the Dayton shooter’s motives, early reporting indicates that the Dayton shooter described himself as a leftist, hated Donald Trump, supported Elizabeth Warren, and once wrote “kill every fascist.” He condemned “concentration camps” at the border. Angry political hyperbole that invokes the language of death or the Holocaust is toxic. Period.

This is a pivotal moment in our modern history. Every wave of terror is dangerous, but waves of racist terror are particularly dangerous in a nation that was once torn to bloody shreds in large part because of its repugnant white supremacism.

Law enforcement should pursue terrorists relentlessly. Policymakers should think creatively. And our nation’s leaders need to focus on reconciliation and unity, and if they are not up to that most basic and fundamental aspect of their job, then they must be replaced.