A number of reputable media outlets refuse to identify the perpetrators of mass violence by name. This attempt to limit the “celebrity” of mass killers is presented as a public service, but my doubts are growing. I often see this editorial decision of professional newscasters become a mantra for some on the American political Left. They claim the principled response is to “ignore” or “forget” the person(s) responsible. Currently I’m seeing versions of this sentiment repeated in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. Without fully intending to, I am concerned progressives are contributing to the legitimacy of those who would claim to be part of a massive transnational white supremacist movement.
It may not be possible to draw a single causal line from Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) to Anders Breivik (the right-wing Norwegian gunman) to Brenton Tarrant (one of the Christchurch attackers). But the reporting is out there: Breivik and Tarrant were in touch at some point. And like McVeigh before them, they share a deep concern with the legitimacy of their actions. All three of these white nationalists aspired to catastrophically undermine the liberal political order they find so inhospitable to the white race. To the degree they were willing to pay a price for their actions, they are a representative collection of white martyrs.
Anonymity grants mystique. My concern is that this mystique is attractive to a certain segment of the Internet’s many users. Disaffected white men are easily radicalized. Yearning for a sense of belonging to something greater than the self animates many fine people seeking admission to the Armed Forces. Indeed, McVeigh once wrote a letter criticizing the distinctions between his conduct and that of the American military.
White supremacists around the world aren’t in a vacuum. They pay attention to each other. Breivik sweeping justifications for his actions clock in around 1500 pages. Tarrant’s 74-page typo-riddled manifesto doesn’t stack up to Breivik prose. (Perhaps this animates his disclosure there was a relatively longer treatment, but he supposedly deleted it.)
Before the 2016 election, I might have said we risk drastically overstating their appeal when we willfully collapse them into a single or cohesive group. I was sensitive to the argument sustained media attention would inspire copycats. But white nationalists are/were in the White House. Tarrant has personal antipathy for Donald Trump, but he sees him as a useful means to an end.
So does Steve Bannon, the President’s one-time “Chief Strategist.” And so does Stephen Miller, one-time advisor to Jeff Sessions. Casting himself in the shadow of Vladimir Lenin, Bannon has quipped, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Miller’s contempt for immigrants is well-documented. Both men have had the ear of the President of the United States. They both fundamentally believe “the West” is under assault. Their concerns are existential and their rhetoric approaches the apocalyptic.
In short, they believe they’re already fighting a war. If they’re akin to generals and a respectable public face, then McVeigh and Breivik and Tarrant are their soldiers. Martyrs are good for building a brand. Rather than dignify them with silence, one option is to shame them often and loudly. Bannon’s tub desecration is worth revisiting. Miller’s run-in with a D.C. sushi purveyor is the stuff of comedy gold. And McVeigh, Breivik, and Tarrant are so deeply worried about being taken seriously that it borders on the pathological. But it would be a mistake to say they are sick and therefore not our collective social problem. They may exist on the fringe, but they are actively cleaving to existing modes of conferring legitimacy to armed conflict.
I take this to be most recently communicated by Tarrant. In his manifesto, he anticipates comments and concerns from detractors. His hypothetical critic states: “You are a bigot,racist,xenophobe,islamophobe,nazi,fascist!” His reply is worth considering in full:
What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch? I’ll have you know I graduated top of my class in the Navy Seals, and I’ve been involved in numerous secret raids on Al-Quaeda, and I have over 300 confirmed kills. I am trained in gorilla warfare and I’m the top sniper in the entire US armed forces. You are nothing to me but just another target. I will wipe you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my fucking words. You think you can get away with saying that shit to me over the Internet? Think again, fucker. As we speak I am contacting my secret network of spies across the USA and your IP is being traced right now so you better prepare for the storm, maggot. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re fucking dead, kid. I can be anywhere, anytime, and I can kill you in over seven hundred ways, and that’s just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in unarmed combat, but I have access to the entire arsenal of the United States Marine Corps and I will use it to its full extent to wipe your miserable ass off the face of the continent, you little shit. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little “clever” comment was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have held your fucking tongue. But you couldn’t, you didn’t, and now you’re paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will shit fury all over you and you will drown in it. You’re fucking dead, kiddo.
His denigration looks familiar to anyone aware of the present state of discourse on sites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. Read aloud, it sounds like the kind of banter you’d hear in multi-player shooter games like Fortnite (which he references elsewhere). At one point Tarrant denies wanting primacy of place in the movement he is trying to build. All glory to the cause, he suggests. But his need to be taken more seriously than those who merely talk the talk drove him to targeting Muslims and killing 49 people. He is necessarily more committed to the cause than losers hiding behind the Internet. In turn he becomes useful to stoking the fears that make the political agenda of white nationalists like Bannon and Miller possible.