At least 20 people are dead in El Paso, Texas, and once again some ghoul with a rifle has reignited the moronic inferno of online commentary that follows such events. Was this an act of terrorism? If the gunman’s alleged manifesto proves genuine, does that mean the so-called alt-right or online white nationalism shares blame for this atrocity? Should zealots have access to deadly weapons? Is Donald Trump—recently seen on Twitter gloating about the burglary of a congressman’s home in Baltimore—capable of a statesmanlike response that acknowledges and repudiates his support from those who openly or tacitly celebrate the crime? (A second mass shooting, in Dayton, Ohio, in the early hours of Sunday morning, left at least nine dead; the motive there remains unclear, but that has not restrained similar speculation.) If you are spending any time at all litigating the perfectly obvious answers to these questions, you should stop, drop, and roll, because the flames are consuming you, and pretty soon nothing will be left but a pile of soot and a charred iPhone.
A four-page statement appeared online minutes before the shooting yesterday. Police are investigating whether the gunman wrote it. It is, unlike the Christchurch, New Zealand, manifesto, straightforward and written in language comprehensible to normal people, rather than in allusive, wink-laden online jargon. One benefit of that straightforwardness is that, if police confirm the strongly suspected link between the gunman and the manifesto, no debate will be necessary about what motivated the killer, or what fountains of ideas he drank from.
The author of the manifesto pronounced himself in “general” agreement with the Christchurch murderer. He opposed racial mixing; he thought America was committing suicide by letting Hispanics “invade.” He intended to kill to counter these trends, and he claimed to be ready to die in the act. He even endorsed, tactically, the targeting of innocent and unarmed people, using the phrase low-security targets (imagine the type of subhuman consciousness that would refer to cowering children this way).
Let’s get back to those fountains of ideas. The very few noteworthy sections of the manifesto are the ones that reveal a broader range of influences than one might suspect. The author reserves his greatest rage not for Hispanics, but for “the takeover of the United States by unchecked corporations.” The corporations, he says, are pro-immigration and befoul our natural environment. Once automation spreads and causes mass unemployment, Hispanic invaders will demand government freebies—specifically a universal basic income (UBI)—and will cause civil unrest if not placated. Oddly enough, the author shares some of these goals, for white people anyway: “Achieving ambitious social projects like universal healthcare and UBI would become far more likely to succeed if tens of millions of dependents are removed.” The ideal, he suggests, would be automation without immigration, so that the low-paying jobs would go to robots and nonimmigrant Americans would get the good jobs.
Many of these ideas, including some of the most stupid and craven ones, come not from the right, as traditionally conceived, but from the left as well. The left has peddled conspiracies of corporations as diabolical puppeteers (while the right has credulously promoted corporations as angelic job creators). Lack of confidence in job markets’ ability to digest and repurpose displaced workers is typically a concern of the left, and, of course, the Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has been the most vocal figure on the subject of job loss due to automation. UBI and health care have been proposed by Swedish-model Democrats and ridiculed by Republicans. The belief that poor immigrants would, if given the chance, fill our welfare rolls and capsize the ship of state—that’s the position not only of the Trump adviser Stephen Miller but also of Bernie Sanders and a long tradition of labor leftists eager to keep “American jobs” safe from immigrants. Combine these ideas, which have traction now in both major parties, with straightforward racism and xenophobia, which have traction in one major party, and you get what we saw yesterday in El Paso.
If you think that this cross-pollination of ideas means Sanders is just as culpable as Trump, then congratulations: You just cannonballed right into the inferno. It is one thing to favor one’s countrymen over one’s potential countrymen, as Sanders does (narrow-mindedly, in my view). It is quite another to cultivate hatred and fear of foreigners, to encourage political violence, and to amplify wing-nut conspiracies that, if true, would implicate millions of people in treason. To my knowledge, only one politician on the national stage has done all of these things.
What the diverse sources of the author’s ideology show is that in political violence, as in so many other parts of modern life, inspiration comes from an ever more bizarre range of origins. Portions of the manifesto read like an eco-terrorist rant from the 1980s. Others read like Timothy McVeigh. “Actually the Hispanic community was not my target,” the manifesto says, “until I read ‘The Great Replacement’ [the Christchurch manifesto].” These conspiracies have been snatched from the buffet line of bad ideas, then served up as a form of fascism.
Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that he has focused on stopping violence rather than ideology: You can think anything you want, but being violent is what will trigger the feds’ attention. His statement may sound odd if, like me, you think that people who kill after writing ideological manifestos are largely motivated by, well, ideology.
But past experience with jihadism is instructive here. Jihadists believe many things that many ordinary, peaceful Muslims believe; they take those beliefs and pursue them with extreme intellectualized violence. How do you police an ideology shared in part by millions of law-abiding citizens? Given that Americans are supposed to enjoy freedom of conscience, how do you police an ideology at all?
As we learn more about the perpetrator, we will doubtless discover that he said vile and alarming things, online and off, long before he started killing. In retrospect, all these statements will feel like tragic missed opportunities to straitjacket a young man and save both his life (he will soon face Texas justice, after all) and the lives of at least 20 others. But keep in mind how commonplace, on a sentence-by-sentence level, portions of that manifesto are. Just how many straitjackets can our society afford?
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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