Yesterday, in the Texan border town of El Paso, a young white supremacist opened fire at a Walmart, killing 20 people and injuring dozens more. His intention, per a manifesto he left on the website 8chan, was to exact revenge against “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” to forestall what he called “cultural and ethnic replacement,” and to “reclaim my country from destruction.” His actions, he confirmed in the first line, were inspired by “the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.” The killer was the second gunman to cite Christchurch as an inspiration in the last six months. The perpetrator of the massacre at California’s Poway Synagogue — also a devotee of 8chan — made exactly the same claim in April. In the Internet era, malevolence tends to echo.
During the Cold War, Ian Fleming observed that “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” So it is here. It would be both too glib and too simplistic to smother the details of these attacks beneath a single word such as “horror” or a catch-all euphemism such as “senseless.” In America, as abroad, we see our fair share of inexplicable violence. But the patterns on display over the last few years have revealed that we are contending here not with another “lone wolf,” but with the fruit of a murderous and resurgent ideology — white supremacy — that deserves to be treated by the authorities in the same manner as has been the threat posed by militant Islam.
We will see a myopic focus on guns in the coming days, tied to a broader discussion of America’s “mass shooting problem.” This will be a mistake — not because America does not have such a problem, but because to focus on limiting a certain tool in a country with half a billion of those tools in circulation and a constitutional provision protecting their ownership is to set oneself up for guaranteed failure. In the last decade, we have watched in horror as devastating attacks have been carried out with the help of trucks, cars, bombs, grenades, incendiary devices, matches, and more. The task before us, to nip this grotesque insurgency in the bud, should transcend our debates over means.
Addressing the problem will require a number of different approaches, some broad, some narrow. President Trump, a man who is comfortable using his bully pulpit for the most frivolous of reasons, should take the time to condemn these actions repeatedly and unambiguously, in both general and specific terms. Simultaneously, the president should work with Congress to devote more resources to infiltrating, tracking, and foiling nascent plots (during the 1940s, the KKK was partly destroyed by a radio show that weaponized insider information against it), and he should instruct the federal government to initiate an information campaign against white-supremacist violence in much the same way as it has conducted crusades against drunk driving, human trafficking, and domestic violence. Just as the government must not react to these incidents by abridging the Second Amendment or the Fourth Amendment, obviously the First Amendment’s crucial protections must also remain intact. But where action is consistent with the law — there is no prohibition on monitoring hotbeds of radicalism, nor against punishing those who plan or incite violence — it must be vigorously taken.
In concert, Americans must recognize that they have a crucial role to play in rooting out this awful ideology and in superintending the places in which it spreads. After an abomination such as this, the right of free association tends to get a bad rap. But, properly understood, free association serves as much as the remedy to extremism as its enabler. If, as they should, the various providers that make websites such as 8chan possible decide that they no longer wish to do so, that is their prerogative. If, as they should, Americans take it upon themselves to spot the early warning signs of radicalization and do whatever they are able to discourage it, that is their prerogative. Here, as elsewhere, the best prophylactic against mass killings is individual intervention and social responsibility.
Alas, technology has made it tougher, not easier, to address threats such as this. It is one thing for undercover agents to infiltrate a militia or a terrorist cell in the hopes of taking action before a plot can be brought to fruition, but it is quite another to track a series of dispersed and unaffiliated actors who may or may not be in the process of adopting a radicalizing ideology that they have encountered online. In the space of a century, our mission has gone from tracking men in uniform who happily lined up in marked trenches, to tracking semi-ironic lost boys floating around the ether. But while the tactics have changed, the rest has not. Now, as ever, evil is evil and murder is murder, and we gain nothing by refusing to call them by their names.