Americans these days seem to be waking up every morning to the news of another mass murder in their own country. I write this on Monday, August 5, which is the 217th day of the year, and as of this morning, in the wake of two mass shootings 13 hours apart, killing in total 31 innocent people, there have been 251 such shootings since the beginning of this year. Thus more than one a day. A mass shooting is one in which at least four people are shot, not including the shooter. A mass murder is one in which more than three people are killed. By my count (numbers from Wikipedia), including the two tragedies of today and yesterday, 282 persons have been killed in these mass shootings.
By any measure, mass murder is terrorism, and this is an outbreak of domestic terrorism that rivals any in the world today. In addition to 282 murders by terrorists using firearms, in the United States, guns are responsible for over 8,000 murders that are criminal in nature, and no less tragic. Mass shooting/murder, of course, is not singular and is always a terrorist incident, motivated by some social grievance that can be, but is not always, political in nature, and it adds to the already bloated number of gun deaths in this country.
When these mass murders occur, we Americans will think first of the vast amount of firearms that are awash in our society, and especially those firearms made especially for war—the automatic, high caliber, high velocity weapons that soldiers use—which are available for virtually unrestricted public purchase in many parts of the US. After a mass shooting, there always arises an outcry for a more restrictive policy on the sales of such weapons. And, of course, this is one of the major reasons these domestic terrorism incidents are so common; there is a great laxity in the US gun control laws because of the ability of gun owners and manufacturers to take advantage of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, which has for many decades been misinterpreted to permit an almost unlimited access to almost any kind of firearm. This hypocrisy is well understood, and yet attempts to reinterpret that amendment are generally the third rail of US politics; political leaders of both parties won’t touch it for fear of political death. Someday the increasing number of mass murders might drive the public to change this, but even if the sale of guns were banned outright, it would take a generation to stop the carnage. There are almost 400 million guns now in private hands in the US and getting them out of those private hands would require political will that few governments in a democracy would possess.
But I am not writing on this sad subject to echo those many plaintive calls from the families of the victims of mass shootings for more gun control although I agree that the availability of guns is the primary problem. I see no likelihood that our political leaders can ever summon the courage to face off with the powerful gun lobby and its gun-loving supporters. But to say that these mass murders are terrorism can be taken to imply a political motivation that probably isn’t there in many cases. Many of the killers die during their attack either by their own hand or by police action, and most leave no written evidence of their motivation. I assume that most, if not all, of the killers would fit in the category of mentally disturbed, and this assumption is the basis of the increasing public demands for extensive and invasive background checks before one can purchase a gun. Given the availability of guns in the society, even seriously strict background checks will not have immediate impact, but could over time reduce the number of such attacks.
But some of the killers do leave evidence of their motivation, usually a screed on the internet, and this evidence points to a disturbingly noxious political motivation that seems to have grown precipitously in the last two years. That is the emergence of White Nationalism as the motivation for some of the shootings—shootings in which the primary targets are certainly people of colour or other religious or ethnic minorities. The shooting in El Paso, Texas on Saturday, August 3 is the most recent example of this increasing trend. In that shooting, 22 people were killed and 17 others wounded. And according to his statement posted on the internet, the shooter’s motivation was to kill Mexican immigrants.
In fact, the FBI has published numbers indicate that, since 2012, 17 mass shootings have been perpetrated by shooters the FBI terms “White Extremist,” which I believe is just another name for “White Supremacist” or “White Nationalist.” And in the past year and a half, 9 of those 17 shootings have occurred, an increase of over 100 percent in the last 18 months of a seven-year period. Clearly White Nationalists (Supremacists/Extremists) have either grown in number or become bolder. I think it is clear the latter is mainly the case (although I don’t rule out that the increasing White Nationalist mass attacks and expanded presence on the internet has attracted new adherents to this toxic doctrine).
White Nationalists have always been present in American life, but for the most part in small scattered groups confined to the margins of society. Scholars who have studied White Nationalism believe that, over the past two-three decades these groups have been building links with each other and internationally, with the objective of roiling society and creating race war that would lead toward an “Aryan” society. What they didn’t expect, however is that a US President would imply sympathy to their cause. But Trump’s entire career has been one of racial innuendo, and his political career started with the racial dog whistle about where President Obama was born. He has shown, throughout his presidency, a willingness to play to the White Nationalists, starting with his ambiguous statements during the White Nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, his ban of Muslim immigration, his continuing draconian policies toward migrants seeking asylum. His recent broadsides telling Democratic politicians of colour who have criticized him “to go back where they came from” (ludicrous as they are all American) could well have had the effect of encouraging White Nationalist extremists to action against those they hate.
In fact, Trump has really laid his cards on the table in the last few weeks, making it clear from his statements to those politicians and subsequently that he views US citizenship as only for whites; this is the fundamental bottom line of White Nationalism. Trump may have been following this line of thought when, in 2008-9, he spent nearly a year pushing the idea that Obama was not an American citizen—was it truly because of where he claimed Obama was born, or was it really because he was black? Now, of course, with the public outcry about the two recent shootings, he is suddenly changing tack, and sticking to his teleprompter to avoid uttering automatically his usual racially tinged dog whistles. The genie is, however, out of the bottle, both as to his true beliefs, and to the White Nationalist design for our future.
The writer is an American diplomat, and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.