There Are No Lone Wolves
Sometime in May 2020, Payton Gendron, a 16-year-old in upstate New York, was browsing the website 4chan when he came across a GIF.
It was taken from a livestream recording made the previous year by a gunman as he killed 51 people and wounded more than 40 others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The killer had written a manifesto explaining that he was motivated by the fear of great replacement theory, the racist belief that secretive forces are importing nonwhite people to dilute countries’ white majorities.
Seeing the video and the manifesto “started my real research into the problems with immigration and foreigners in our white lands — without his livestream I would likely have no idea about the real problems the West is facing,” Mr. Gendron wrote in his own manifesto, posted on the internet shortly before, officials say, he drove to a Tops grocery store in Buffalo and carried out a massacre of his own that left 10 Black people dead.
The authorities say Mr. Gendron’s attack in May mimicked the massacre in Christchurch not just in its motivation but also in tactics. He reduced his caloric intake and cataloged his diet to prepare physically, as the Christchurch killer did. He practiced shooting. He wrote slogans on his rifle, as the Christchurch gunman did. He livestreamed his attack with a GoPro camera attached to his helmet, with the idea of inspiring other attacks by fellow extremists. Mr. Gendron’s screed ran to 180 pages, with 23 percent of those pages copied word-for-word from the Christchurch killer’s manifesto, according to an investigative report on the attacks released last month by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James.
On the day of the shooting, State Senator James Sanders echoed the horrified response of many: “Although this is probably a lone-wolf incident, this is not the first mass shooting we have seen, and sadly it will not be the last,” he said.
It’s unfortunate that the term “lone wolf” has come into such casual use in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks. It aims to describe a person — nearly always a man — who is radicalized to violence but unconnected to an organized terrorist group like Al Qaeda. But it is wrong to think about violent white supremacists as isolated actors.
There are formal white supremacist organizations going by names like Atomwaffen Division (Canada, Germany, Italy, Britain, United States), Honor and Nation (France), the All-Polish Youth (Poland). But while the majority of adherents to the white supremacist cause aren’t directly affiliated with these groups, they describe themselves as part of a global movement of like-minded people, some of whom commit acts of leaderless violence in the hopes of winning more adherents and destabilizing society.
The atomized nature of the global white extremist movement has also obscured the public’s understanding of the nature of their cause and led to policy prescriptions that aren’t enough to address the scope of the threat. Thoughts and prayers alone will not solve the problem, nor will better mental health care, important though all those things are. One missing piece of any solution is acknowledging that right-wing extremist violence in the United States is part of a global phenomenon and should be treated that way.
There has been a steady rise in political violence in the United States in the years since Donald Trump became president. Threats against sitting members of Congress have skyrocketed. The husband of the speaker of the House was assaulted in his home by a man wielding a hammer. This year, venues from school board meetings to libraries have been the sites of physical clashes. The majority of the political violence in the past few years has come from right-wing extremists, experts say.
The country cannot accept violence as a method of mediating its political disagreements. There are steps the United States should take now, including cracking down on illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and weeding extremists out of positions of power in law enforcement and the military. Extremists succeed when they have access to power — be that positions of power, the sympathy of those in power or a voice in the national conversation. They should be denied all three.
Violent right-wing extremists harbor a variety of beliefs, from a loathing of the government to explicit white supremacy. During his time in office and in the years since, Mr. Trump and his political allies have not only encouraged political violence, through their silence or otherwise, they have also helped bring explicitly white supremacist ideas like the “great replacement” into mainstream politics and popular culture. “This extremism isn’t going to go away or moderate until the people who have normalized it realize their culpability in the things that it inspires,” Oren Segal, the vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview.
White supremacy has been part of the story of this country since its earliest days, but the modern notion of replacement is a foreign import. It was outlined in 2012 by Renaud Camus, a French author who has written that immigrants with high birthrates are a threat to white European society. He built on the ideas of another Frenchman, Jean Raspail, who wrote the 1973 book “The Camp of the Saints,” which imagined a flotilla of immigrants who overthrow French society.
The book is a touchstone in white supremacist circles and is popular with some prominent Republicans. Stephen Miller, a senior official in the Trump administration, once recommended the book to the staff of Breitbart when he was a Senate aide, according to emails obtained by the A.D.L. A former Iowa congressman known for defending white supremacy, Steve King, has said that everyone should read it.
The idea of hostile replacement by immigrants has gained currency and some acceptance around the world, even after inspiring mass killers in New Zealand and Buffalo, Norway and South Carolina. Extremists driven to murder are a tiny fraction of those who subscribe to racist ideologies, but the mainstreaming of their ideascan make the turn to violence easier for some.
That’s why it is alarming to see the great replacement idea espoused by political leaders around the globe, including Jordan Bardella, who this month was confirmed as the successor to Marine Le Pen as head of France’s leading far-right party. It has been cited approvingly by Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and darling of some American conservatives. Tucker Carlson of Fox News talks about it often. An alarming poll by The Associated Press-NORC this year found that about one in three American adults believes that “a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” Last year a poll found that 61 percent of French people believe that, too.
That the great replacement theory has gone mainstream is a victory for white supremacists and their cause. “White power activists in the 1990s thought that political action on their cause was not possible — that the door to that was closed. That’s not true anymore,” said Kathleen Belew, a professor at Northwestern and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.”
One of the best ways to counter a global ideology of violent extremism in a country that also wants to protect civil liberties is to create problems for extremists — to work to make them less popular and less capable, notes Daniel Byman in his new book, “Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism.”
Domestic law enforcement agencies in the United States already have effective tools to target organized extremist groups, including wiretaps and undercover informants. They also don’t face language and cultural barriers that they may have had focusing on jihadis. A pervasive problem, though, is the political will to turn the power of the state against white supremacists. Too often, extremism researchers point out, there’s a reluctance in white-majority nations to see white extremists as threatening as nonwhite foreigners.
The United States is also newer to thinking about this white extremism as a transnational problem. “European intelligence officials have long expressed frustration that their U.S. counterparts have not answered their requests for legal assistance and information,” Mr. Byman wrote.
The Biden administration has at least started to heed the warnings of more than a decade’s worth of intelligence reports suggesting that domestic extremism is a problem with a global reach. The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Extremism, released last year, noted that “aspects of the domestic terrorism threat we face in the United States, and in particular those related to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism, have an international dimension.”
The strategy laid out some good ideas about solutions to the threat, such as wider and deeper information sharing between the U.S. government and foreign nations about extremist groups and their networks, their finances and their movements. It directed the State Department to leverage public diplomacy to raise awareness about the threat and help counter extremist propaganda and disinformation. The strategy also noted that the cross-border nature of extremist networks makes it possible to collect intelligence (mainly by intercepting communications) of people outside the country. The tip that helps thwart the next attack by white supremacists inside the United States could very well come from overseas.
The strategy also raised the possibility of designating some foreign right-wing extremist groups as foreign terrorist organizations or “specially designated global terrorists,” which would make it illegal for Americans to support or receive training from them. But such an approach isn’t a panacea and carries serious risks — it could hamper efforts to de-radicalize extremists, for instance — and runs counter to a lesson of the war on terrorism, which was that not all extremist groups posed an equal danger to the homeland.
It is encouraging that this strategy is in place, but it needs more attention and urgency, from lawmakers and from the American public, to be successful. Congressional oversight committees will hold annual hearings to see whether the United States is making progress on this strategy, but so far it is not clear how effective it has been.
Another approach tried in about a dozen countries around the world is de-radicalization programs, which encourage extremists to either change their minds or at the very least reject violence. The German and British governments in addition to the United States have had some success with de-radicalization programs aimed at white supremacists. In Germany, EXIT-Deutschland works with neo-Nazis. In Britain, a program called Prevent that originally focused on jihadists has now been reoriented to white supremacists, though there are complaints that the net of problematic right-wing views is being cast too widely.
As with all these approaches, one of the precarious aspects of the domestic fight against far-right and white supremacist extremists is that the government’s response must try to avoid alienating people who believe in things like expansive gun rights or strict limits on immigration yet eschew violence. Often, they are the only credible messengers who can reach the deeply radicalized and talk them back from a more violence course.
This tension is evident around efforts by social media companies to crack down on extremist content. When mainstream companies like Facebook ban content, it can push people who are interested in extremist or offensive material to lesser-known platforms, like 4chan, where moderation is less aggressive and moderators have fewer resources.
There is hope, however, that better automatic monitoring of content and enforcement of platforms’ terms of service, which take freedom of expression concerns into account, can push extremist material to the fringes. The massacre in Buffalo, for instance, was livestreamed on the platform Twitch. About two minutes after the first shots were fired, the stream was taken offline. As social media experts told The Times, that was “the best that could reasonably be expected.”
The quick response and the scrubbing of subsequent copies of the video and the manifesto from the internet was made possible in part by groups like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which was founded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in 2017 and now includes more than a dozen platforms.
The consortium can flag extremist content like videos of shootings and tag it in a way that other platforms can search for and remove copies that pop up on their services. In the nine weeks after the Buffalo shooting, Meta automatically removed around one million pieces of content related to the attacks.
Of course, the automated tools aren’t perfect. The New York attorney general’s office found videos of the shooting or links to them on Reddit, Instagram and Twitter, and links to the manifesto on Rumble, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok. Tech companies can and should invest more money and resources in content moderation at scale, but that alone will not purge the internet of extremism — especially when the networks for sharing it cross international borders, span continents and come in countless languages.
Recognizing that violent white supremacy is a global problem should help the United States and its allies develop more cooperative, international solutions. Success will be difficult to measure; the ideology may never disappear, but levels of violence can be reduced. Most important, if lawmakers and ordinary Americans make a concerted effort to drive extremist rhetoric out of mainstream politics, the influence of these groups will again fade.
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