The Responsibility Isn’t Theirs Alone

The killings in New Zealand

Christchurch, New Zealand, March 2019.

The war on terror has always been a war against Muslims. It was conceived as a war that would be fought everywhere, without regard for national boundaries. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” President Bush said just hours after the attacks on September 11, putting the world on implicit notice that the US would feel free to target anything and anyone—including a religion practiced by nearly two billion people—it decided was associated with terrorism. Four months later, at his State of the Union address, he warned that “thousands of dangerous killers are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs.” How to identify these killers? The answer, provided again and again by politicians, commentators, films, video games, and television, is that the killers will look like they are from the Middle East, and they will gather in mosques. (No need to be too fastidious about whether it’s actually a mosque. White supremacist Wade Michael Page killed six people at a Sikh temple in 2012—one wonders if he knew or cared about the difference.) “There’s a picture of the World Trade Center hanging up by my bed,” one American soldier said shortly after the invasion of Iraq. “Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think: ‘They hit us at home and now it’s our turn.’” The 28-year-old Australian citizen who murdered dozens of Muslims in a Christchurch, New Zealand mosque yesterday made it clear that vengeance motivated him, too. He is part of the coalition of the willing.

I recently read about a speech Joe Biden gave in front of some firefighters, as part of his build-up to running for President. He got sentimental about the period right after the September 11 attacks, saying, “I think about that time after 9/11 a lot these days. We were so united.” But it wasn’t just grief that united people. It was also racist rage, and the rage has been more durable than the grief. In the panicked effort to understand the New Zealand shooter’s actions, the lengthy manifesto he posted has been quoted and described but not widely shared in full, which has allowed for some selective reading. One Times article described the shooter as “primarily driven by white nationalism.” Another argued that his manifesto was aimed squarely at the jargon- and inside-joke-laden internet subculture of white supremacy, that this was the first “internet-native mass shooting, conceived and produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism.” The word “entirely” at the center of that sentence twitches with anxiety.

In the manifesto itself, the shitposting style and the Easter eggs are a delivery mechanism, a shared dialect, and a global race war is the goal, culminating in a renewed sense of security and purpose among white European ethnostates and their descendants, a group to which the shooter believes Australia and New Zealand belong. But his root motivation is terrorism. One section of the manifesto has a question for a heading: “Was there a particular event or reason you decided to commit a violent attack?” He answers that a number of experiences during two months he spent traveling around Europe in 2017 set his course:

The first event that begun the change was the terror attack in Stockholm, on the 7th of April 2017. It was another terror attack in the seemingly never ending attacks that had been occurring on a regular basis throughout my adult life. But for some reason this was different. The jaded cynicism with which I had greeted previous attacks didn’t eventuate. Something that had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember, cynicism in the face of attacks on the West by islamic invaders, was suddenly no longer there. I could no longer bring the sneer to my face, I could no longer turn my back on the violence. Something, this time, was different.

The reveal is that he was upset by the death of Ebba Akerlund, an 11-year-old girl who was killed along with four other people when a man who had expressed sympathy with the Islamic State and other extremist organizations hijacked a truck and ran people down on a busy street. Like Jack Bauer, galvanized into action when terrorists kidnap his wife and daughter in the first season of 24, the shooter’s meditations on a victimized white girl “broke through my own jaded cynicism like a sledgehammer.” For the shooter, and for other right-wing extremists, Akerlund’s image is the white nationalist equivalent of a never forget poster on the wall of a New York pizzeria.

The shooter’s meditations continued as he drove around France and became increasingly frustrated at his inability to find a city or town populated only by white people. Despairing, he claims very conveniently to have come across a cemetery for the European dead of the World Wars. Moved by the expanse of “simple, white, wooden crosses,” he works himself up over the sacrifices these soldiers made while failing to note that the people who made them died trying to kill people like him. “I broke into tears, sobbing alone in the car, staring at the crosses, at the forgotten dead,” he writes. “Why were we allowing these soldiers deaths to be in vain?” This is the moment of reckoning, when he at last acknowledges the magnitude of the threat facing Europe, without equivocation. “While attention was elsewhere, a deadly and irreconcilable enemy was laying plans and training recruits,” he writes. This is a sobering realization, but it exhilarates him, too—rather than cower in the face of this assault on his culture, he wants to fight back: “A lethal and remorseless foe is a troubling thing in more than one way. Not only may he wish you harm; he may force you to think and to act.” Then and there, he commits to violence, in the name of protecting what he sees as a civilization under attack.

I haven’t been completely honest. The last two quotations in the previous paragraph aren’t from the shooter’s manifesto. They’re from Christopher Hitchens in December 2001, criticizing leftists whose response to terrorism he saw as insufficiently muscular. The rhetorics of white nationalism and the war on terror have an easy time overlapping because they share the same emotional architecture, a hysterical version of civilizational conflict justified by false or exaggerated claims of victimization. At the heart of the shooter’s manifesto is the lie embedded in his use of the word “invaders” to describe Middle Eastern immigrants. What white nationalists call the “invasion” of the West by non-native Muslims over the last few years is in reality a refugee crisis caused by the West, by America’s failed attempt to remake the Middle East in its own image, which ushered in political chaos and destroyed the foundations of social peace in countries all over the region. And that doomed project would never have made it out the door but for the country’s political leaders and commentators relentlessly exaggerating the threats posed by terrorists and the states that supported them. Among those exaggerations: they are incapable of reason, which makes negotiations useless; they are close to obtaining nuclear weapons; they have the ability to change the way Americans live their daily lives; they want to destroy American civilization, and the only way to prevent them is to demonize and destroy theirs.

White nationalists are happy to acknowledge the civilizational character of their fight, often eager to embrace the label “racist,” whereas most of the war on terror’s architects have always denied that their conflict is with Muslims as such. We aren’t at war with a religion, they say, just the fanatics, just the version of a religion that says it’s OK to fly planes into buildings and carry out suicide attacks. But if this were true, if the “Islam Is Peace” speech George W. Bush delivered shortly after September 11 were anything other than a nauseating publicity stunt, the conflict would never have been framed in religious terms to begin with. Terrorists aren’t religious actors as such. They are political actors who use religion to win adherents and advance their arguments in parts of the world where much of public discussion happens in religious terms, and the September 11 attacks were about politics first and foremost, as Osama bin Laden stated clearly. Al Qaeda attacked the United States because they wanted America to leave Saudi Arabia, to end its support of Israel in the Middle East, and to stop imposing sanctions in Iraq. The Bush Administration could have responded in kind, could have acknowledged the political demands that motivated the attacks, rejected them, and vowed to fight them with military force. Instead it told people that the US had been attacked because the terrorists “hate our freedoms,” our culture, our values—in short, our civilization. Bush had a choice in how to frame the conflict that followed September 11, and he chose the framing that white nationalists use.

To leave terrorism out of the analysis of what produced the New Zealand shooting is an attempt to narrow the scope of who is responsible. Clutching its knees to its chest and rocking back and forth, the news media self-soothes with the thought that Donald Trump and the internet are to blame for everything. The internet provided these isolated racists with a forum, they say, a place to refine their ideas and build solidarity, and then Trump brought it all out into the open with his vile demagoguery, his mastery over and susceptibility to the whims of agitated, frothing crowds. But the childishness of this explanation becomes clear as soon as you consider the full spectrum of what Muslims around the world have been subjected to over the past two decades. An American mosque gets vandalized with bacon at night and is then monitored by police during the day. A Muslim woman in France gets attacked for wearing a veil and then gets pulled out of line in airport security when trying to visit her relatives. Khaled Mustafa, one of the men killed in New Zealand, was a refugee from Syria, having emigrated just last year. Civilian, child, refugee—according to the logic of the war on terror, they’re all always enemy combatants.

Donald Trump, his awful family, the Stephens Miller and Bannon, Candace Owens, Richard Spencer, John Bolton, and all the other ogres who currently prowl the national stage are responsible for New Zealand insofar as they’ve invited white supremacy to voice its desires in plain speech, to march in major cities and to beat or even kill those who come out to confront them. (Trump: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people.”) But the responsibility isn’t theirs alone. When Trump took power, he inherited a rationale for global war that had been worked out and institutionalized by the two Presidents who preceded him and that had the full support of both political parties. All of Washington has spent the last eighteen years working to expand the set of circumstances under which it’s acceptable for white people to observe and harass and kill Muslims, and to minimize the justifications that are required to do so. To date, the climate of hatred and fear they have produced is the 21st century’s most important bipartisan achievement.

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