Special Briefing: Rise of the Terror Manifesto

Police keep watch outside a Walmart near the scene of a mass shooting which left at least 20 people dead on August 4, 2019

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Why you should care

Because words can be deadly.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images, and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? This weekend’s back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have once again trained national attention on gun laws and the country’s divisive political rhetoric. This was especially true after the tragedy in El Paso, where 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, a White man, killed 20 people in the name of anti-Hispanic hatred. Following that attack, even more focus has fallen on the potentially deadly nature of radical White supremacy, as well as the motivation — often expressed in the form of manifestos — that drives such attackers to kill. 

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Flowers and signs are seen at a makeshift memorial after the shooting that left 21 people dead at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas

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Why does it matter? Authorities’ classifiication of the El Paso attack as “domestic terrorism” is only the first step in fully recognizing what’s become a formidable new threat. According to the FBI, 40 percent of its 850 domestic terrorism cases are racially motivated, and most involve White supremacists. These radicalized individuals are often scattered around dark corners of the internet, shielding themselves in digital anonymity. Experts suggest an effective way to prevent mass shootings is to fight the ideology itself, but the glorification of manifestos makes that particularly difficult — especially with law enforcement agencies still largely focused on Islamic extremism. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Chilling example. Killers expressing themselves at length is not a new phenomenon. In 1995, The Washington Post and The New York Times published a 35,000-word screed from Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, who said he would quit terrorism if “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published. The publication helped lead to his capture after Kaczynski’s brother found the words familiar. But the modern form took off with Norweigian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who left behind a 1,500-page manifesto railing against “the Islamization of Europe” after killing 77 people in two July 2011 attacks. Since then, explaining oneself has become a trend for killers with similar motives: To accompany his attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, shooter Brenton Tarrant posted his own screed; not only did he decry the supposed invasion of immigrants but he also named Breivik as an inspiration. “On far-right forums,” wrote one New York Times op-ed author, “the term ‘going Breivik’ means a full commitment to the cause.” That pattern appears to be continuing.

Channeling hate. Tarrant kicked off a chilling trend of his own: posting his manifesto on web forum 8chan, known for its wildly radical content. The El Paso attack, before which Crusius published his own hateful 2,300-word manifesto, was the third this year in which the suspect is believed to have left a written testimony on 8chan. A month after Tarrant’s attack, the 19-year-old named John Earnest who opened fire at a San Diego synagogue, killing one, reportedly published on the site shortly before he began his attack. In that post — as in the El Paso manifesto — the author cited Tarrant as an inspiration. 

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A police officer carrying an automatic rifle guards the area near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March.

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… and competing for it. Radical White supremacists, whether they’re deadly or not, aren’t just supporting one another and building a digital pantheon for these horrific deeds. They’re also “gamifying” the terror committed in the name of racially motivated hate. For example, online sleuths have uncovered posts questioning Crusius’ body count in El Paso and vowing to break Tarrant’s “high score.” The fact that Tarrant’s Christchurch attack was livestreamed, analysts say, is evidence enough that these mass attacks have been taken to a grotesque, if more modern, new level. Meanwhile, although each killer’s manifesto has been laced with similar hateful fears over immigrant-led “invasions,” analysts say there are ways to stand out: Tarrant sprinkled his with inside jokes and pop culture references to “infect the discourse” around the attack.

Day-to-day. Whether rooted in White supremacy or seemingly random, the recent attacks — and, more specifically, the diverse locations where they’ve occurred — have forced Americans to face an increasingly realistic dilemma: Simply being out in public can be dangerous. While the chances of dying in a mass shooting remain microscopic, ordinary people are making rationalizations that earlier may have seemed unnecessary or even absurd. Consider the Virginia preschool teacher who’s afraid of going out alone, but adds, “You can’t just not go.”

WHAT TO READ

From El Paso to Christchurch, a Racist Lie Is Fueling Terrorist Attacks, by Kelly Weill in the Daily Beast

“The difference with the current wave of White supremacist violence … is that White supremacists are decentralized and do their organizing through a leaderless online movement, rather than following orders from recognized leaders.”

White Nationalists Pose Challenge to Investigators, by Dan Frosch, Zusha Elinson and Sadie Gurman in The Wall Street Journal

“Rather than relying on computers scraping websites and forums for suspicious activity, law enforcement increasingly must turn to the expensive and difficult work of gathering information through individual relationships and infiltration of extremist groups.”

WHAT TO WATCH

El Paso Gunman Allegedly Posted ‘Wildly Anti-Immigrant’ Essay Online MSNBC

“This is a real issue — there is a body count associated with this website now.”

Watch on MSNBC on YouTube:

The ‘Gamification’ of Domestic Terrorism Online

“Since Christchurch, there’s been a noticeable uptick and a noticeable parroting and a game of one-upmanship that is happening in this community.”

Watch on PBS NewsHour on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Too hot to handle? Recent research suggests that rising temperatures, like the ones we’ve seen across the world this summer, play a role in boosting aggression at the state and individual levels. Focusing on diverse data sets — one based on Los Angeles street violence over seven years and another on global terrorist attacks over 45 years — two separate studies showed that attacks occurred more frequently (sometimes resulting in more fatalities) on hotter days.

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