A recent mass shooting—22 people killed at a Walmart in El Paso by a gunman who left behind an anti-immigration manifesto—has led some to demand that white nationalism be labeled as a terrorist threat to be cracked down on by the federal government.
The United States continues to employ a staggering arsenal of armed forces, unmanned drones, intelligence agencies and sweeping domestic authorities to contain a threat—Islamist terrorism—that has claimed about 100 lives on American soil since the nation mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
No remotely comparable array of national power has been directed against the threat now emerging from the far right, a loose but lethal collection of ideologies whose adherents have killed roughly the same number of people in the United States, post-9/11, as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State combined.
Let’s see if I get this idea right. They want to deploy the “equivalent” of “armed forces, unmanned drones, intelligence agencies, and sweeping domestic authority”—whatever the hell that means—against American citizens in America who are suspected of being racists. I don’t see what could possibly go wrong.
As usual, everybody needs to calm down.
For one thing, citing the El Paso shooter’s white nationalism is somewhat selective. Byron York actually read through his manifesto and found that is it also full of environmentalist catastrophizing, as well as hysteria about automation and the Universal Basic Income that might have been borrowed from Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Similarly, the El Paso attack was matched by another shooting in Dayton, by a killer with a previous history of obsession with violence and killing. It’s like the old Onion headline about a serial killer being remembered by his neighbors as a creepy, serial killer type. Yet the Dayton shooter was also a left-leaning antifa supporter in his social media accounts, and we all know that if he had been on the right, this would have been treated just as seriously as if he had left a manifesto. Instead, it has been largely ignored.
More important, drawing wide conclusions about larger social trends from a mass shooting is a terrible idea. These are still very rare events. For once, Neil DeGrasse Tyson—a popularizer of science and the poor man’s Carl Sagan—said something sensible in response to the El Paso and Dayton shootings.
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors
300 to the Flu
250 to Suicide
200 to Car Accidents
40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.
Naturally, he was excoriated for this and ended up apologizing. Consider the perverse incentives we have set up for that man. He gives us a woozy, half-baked deepity and everybody love him. He says something that brings actual data to bear in a sensible way and everybody hates him.
But there are better statistics he could have cited. The most relevant would be levels of violent crime and homicides committed with firearms, both of which are way down from their heights in the 1980s and remain at historical lows. Heck, even school shootings—the object of a previous wave of hysteria—are down.
If you narrow the data to just “mass shootings,” defined in some cases as three or more people shot in one incident—a threshold so low it is going to sweep in a lot of ordinary violent crime—is there a slight uptick in recent years? Maybe, but the numbers are still very low. That link, taking data from Mother Jones, which is likely to overstate the problem, says that there have been 736 deaths from mass shootings in the past twenty years, which averages out to 38 people per year.
Needless to say, the number of shootings or violent acts motivated specifically by an ideology of white nationalism are going to be even lower. The Washington Post article I led with says, “The numbers of people killed in attacks linked to Islamist radicals or the far right in the United States since 2002 are virtually equivalent—104 versus 109, respectively.” Note the way this puts a few thumbs on the scale (aside from referring to white nationalists as “the far right”). Starting the statistics after 9/11 is an old trick to make the US response to terrorism look disproportionate by leaving out the largest terrorist attack in recent memory. Limiting the statistics to attacks in the US is also misleading, because Islamic terrorism is a global phenomenon that includes high levels of ongoing violence in the Middle East and relatively recent large-scale attacks in Western countries, such as the Charlie Hebdo attack or the Bataclan massacre in 2015.
Even so, we’re talking about 109 deaths attributed to white nationalists over 18 years, about six people per year. Compare that to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s statistics above. This is a tiny number, smaller by several orders of magnitude than the number of people struck by lightning.
Descriptions of today’s white nationalism as an “insurgency” are beyond hysterical. They also show a poor grasp of history, because we already had that insurgency. In 1962, the president had to deploy federal marshals backed by US Army troops just so a black man could enroll in classes at the University of Mississippi. The minor resurgence of white national theories today is a problem, but it needs to be kept in some serious historical perspective. Back then, it was the governor of Mississippi who was pushing “white genocide” conspiracy theories. Today, it’s mostly a few hundred random guys on the Internet.
The statistics that actually seem to be driving this are less material and more psychological. A friend of mine did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that “the general public craziness starts when the number of dead in these spectacular terrorist attacks, nationally, reaches about 60 in any 12-month period—a murder rate of 0.018 per 100,000 in a country that has 5.3 homicides (murder and justified killing) per 100,000 population. ”
Yet even as demagoguery, this doesn’t particularly work, because mass shootings tend to produce a fresh wave of publicity for gun control for about six weeks—then it inevitably fades and the legislation prepared to cash in on the hysteria dies.
(They may have a little more luck this time because the National Rifle Association is in disarray. This is partly because they are being targeted by the famously abusive powers of the New York state attorney general’s office—but mostly because the attorney general’s fishing expedition caught something: massive conflicts of interest as Wayne LaPierre and his favored contractors looted the organization for fancy suits and expensive homes. As Eric Hoffer famously put it, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”)
Making public policy based on these very rare events is an even greater mistake, because it means that in taking action to prevent something rare, you create negative consequences in cases that are commonplace.
There are a few things that might be a good idea, such as yanking access to certain Internet services for 8chan, an Internet discussion board infamous for being a hangout for white nationalists and plausibly described as an avenue for their “radicalization.” There is probably some point to increased monitoring of such discussion groups to try to identify or dissuade people who are likely to take violent action. But let’s be realistic about the results we can expect. As Kevin Williamson points out, “there is no white-boy al-Qaeda,” no organized group behind these recent attacks that can be targeted and dismantled.
Most proposals are going to be like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s idea of creating a national mental health database, presumably to allow the government to track, monitor, and limit the civil rights of anyone who has ever sought psychiatric help. As many people have rushed to point out, the only predictable consequence of this policy is that fewer people would seek psychiatric help, for fear of getting their names on a list of potentially dangerous people. Yes, most mass shooters have mental illness as a common feature. But there are millions more people with psychological trouble who never become shooters. Any screening for mental illness is going to produce a massive number of “false positives”—millions of harmless people given “red flags” and subjected to some as-yet-undetermined scrutiny in a futile attempt to identify a few dozen potential killers.
Attempting a massive surveillance and counter-terrorism effort against anyone suspected of being a “white nationalist” is going to have the same problem—combined with the obvious potential for ideological bias. For some who are proposing this, the potential for abuse seems to be a major selling point. Here is former CNN host Reza Aslan:
After today, there is no longer any room for nuance. The president is a white nationalist terror leader. His supporters—ALL OF THEM—are by definition white nationalist terror supporters. The MAGA hat is a KKK hood. And this evil, racist scourge must be eradicated from society.
Aslan, a Muslim, has been a critic of the US War on Terror and instead advocated political outreach to “moderate” Islamists. So I guess it all depends on whose ox is gored.
As a mirror image of that, consider Tucker Carlson’s reaction, which is to declare that “white nationalism” as such is a “hoax” and “a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.” It is typical of Tucker these days to complain about a conspiracy theory and then spin his own conspiracy theory about the conspiracy theory. You will not be surprised to learn, of course, that Carlson has had no problem in the past with urging government action motivated by the threat posed to America by Muslim immigrants.
Like I said, it all depends on whose ox is gored. Much of our commentary today is like this, applying one standard to people who are like you and another to people who seem strange and different. Mass surveillance with little concern for civil rights and due process? If you’re on the right, that’s good if we’re searching for radical Muslims, bad if we’re searching for white nationalists. If you’re on the left, vice versa.
Tucker Carlson is the one who has been making me think about this recently, because he has been peddling an outlook that seems strangely familiar, but with all the details reversed. The story goes something like this. The closing of old industrial operations has led to a wave of unemployment, hopelessness, and despair in local communities. This, in turn, has led to dependency on welfare, a decrease in marriage and a corresponding increase in out-of-wedlock births, and above all to an epidemic of drug abuse. If any of that sounds familiar, that’s because in the 1970s and 1980s, this is what was happening largely to black people in the inner cities. Today, it’s happening to white people in small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Then, the drug epidemic was crack cocaine. Today, it’s opioids. Now notice the different reactions.
In the past, it was people on the left who blamed it all on capitalism and big corporations, on racial animus, and on the cruel indifference of elites, pandering to a sense of grievance and victimhood. On the right, you were more likely to hear that the answer was more personal responsibility, welfare reform to encourage work, and a crackdown on drugs. I’m not saying those were the wrong answers; I’ve advocated some of them myself and still do. But it is also an easy answer to give when you are talking about people you don’t perceive as “your” people, and it’s very easy to change your answer when it’s your ox that is being gored.
The proof of that is the Trump-era response to the same suite of problems among rural and small-town whites, which is to flip back to all the tropes once used by the left. It’s the fault of big corporations and global trade and shipping our jobs to China, and most of all it’s about the contempt and indifference of elites, and of course, endless pandering to a new sense of grievance and victimhood. That’s what made me think of Tucker Carlson, who has become the spokesman for all of this and who has basically transformed himself into Al Sharpton for White People.
That it all depends on whose ox is gored—a proverb so old that it hails from the days of ox-driven plows—is an observation about an ineradicable trend in human nature to judge your own affairs by a different standard from everyone else’s. But it’s also a reminder to recognize double standards and special pleading and to rise above it. It’s a reminder to rely on reason rather than emotion. Relying on emotion will tend to cause us to react to events based, not on their actual frequency or significance, but on whether they conform to or conflict with our biases. It will also cause us to choose our responses based on our sympathy for in-groups versus out-groups rather than on some defensible universal principle.
After all, to the extent that racial tribalism is re-emerging as a threat, it is only those universal principles that can provide an answer to tribalism, rather than just an echo of it.