The mass shooting last month, at a high school in Parkland, Florida, has raised serious questions about the underlying causes of such a malignant event. Mass shootings do not occur in a social or political vacuum; they are horrifying indicators of a society in the midst of economic and cultural breakdown.
The issues surrounding gun control, the role of mental illness (if any) in the perpetrator’s background, the role of the National Rifle Association and its influence on American politics – these are legitimate causative factors raised in connection with an individual shooter. These are all subject to extensive examination in the corporate media.
This kind of coverage of mass shootings, while very welcome, omits a crucial dimension – the underlying ideology that motivates ultra-right terrorism – the euphemistically named Alternative Right. Cruz, the Florida shooting perpetrator, expressed his intense hatred of Jews, African Americans, Hispanic people and other minorities in his online communications. These are the main talking points of the ultra-right.
The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was thought to be linked a white supremacist and separatist militia group, the Republic of Florida during initial investigations. The leader of this group, Jordan Jereb, later backtracked from the claim that Cruz was part of his militia, and the Florida authorities have stated that there are no known links between Cruz and the white supremacist organisation. It is instructive to note just how careful the corporate media has been in ascribing any link, whether ideological or organisational, between the perpetrator and the white supremacist and ultra-rightist milieu in which Cruz circulated.
Cruz, through his social media presence, reflected and recycled the ideas and themes of the Alternative Right – the new name for the collection of neo-fascistic and white supremacist ideologies which have a durable presence in America. The Republic of Florida militia group, the organisation to which Cruz was initially tentatively associated, is a white racist patriot militia, dedicated to waging a secessionist war to politically detach Florida from the United States. It seeks to create a purely white ethnoseparatist state, and shares similarities with other neo-Nazi groups, such as the Traditionalist Worker Party.
The link between Cruz and his underlying ideology is being downplayed or minimised, while his individual characteristics are given wide coverage. When the perpetrator of a terrorist attack is Islamist, or uses Islamist symbols to rationalise his/her actions, the corporate media is in no doubt that the motivation of the attacker is the Islamic faith. Muslim perpetrators are routinely portrayed as part and parcel of the wider Islamic community, no matter their individual circumstances. There are no questions asked about the links, if any, between the Muslim suspect and extremist groups.
The entire Muslim community is held collectively responsible for the actions of the Islamist perpetrator, while the white attacker is described as a ‘lone wolf.’ The Muslim community is subjected to hectoring demands that they do more to condemn terrorism and extremism; actually, they have done so repeatedly. The white supremacist killer is clearly recognised as an outsider, unrepresentative of his/her ethnic and cultural community.
It is interesting to note that mental illness, while explored as a potential cause of a white perpetrator’s violence, is never discussed as a possible reason for a Muslim suspect’s behaviour. Leaving aside the huge assumption that there is a causal link between mental illness and violence, it is noteworthy to observe that Muslim suspects never have mental health issues – perhaps Islam is conducive to good mental health (sarcasm alert).
Cruz, and white ultra-rightist attackers like him, have the privilege of the white shooter. What does that mean? Being a white American insulates a perpetrator from the label of terrorism. Shaun King, writing in The Intercept magazine, states that the actions of a Muslim attacker are used to draw resounding conclusions about the disloyal and corrosive nature of the entire Muslim community. The corporate media are emphatic in their evaluation that Islam causes its adherents to kill; self-proclaimed experts cite passages from the Quran, in a seeming effort to bolster their case. The Islamic community is demonised and dehumanised.
It is true that Cruz was obsessed with guns; he posted pictures of guns and weapons on his social media accounts. He learned how to shoot as part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a programme run by the Army in American schools. In a way, the US Army trained a potential child soldier. Cruz was wearing his Reserve Officer Training t-shirt when he carried out the shooting.
It is relevant to note that a student who excels in this junior officer training corps can skip studying biology, physical sciences, art and physical education. Cruz acquired the skills to shoot with expertise from the US Army; it was the Alt-Right ideology that weaponised his hate, motivating him to carry out the killings.
Make no mistake; the ultra-right constitutes an enduring and increasing domestic terrorism threat. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls it a dark and constant rage. This is the terrorism threat that is underplayed or ignored by the Trump administration. The corrosive ideology of the Alternative Right is leading more Americans into an ultra-rightist insurgency, thus fuelling the political campaigns of rightist and anti-immigrant politicians, such as Trump. The ultra-right has moved from the outer fringes to the mainstream, and they had some help from high places.
Earlier we mentioned the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white supremacist and ultra-rightist group similar in ideology to the Republic of Florida, the group in whose orbit Cruz circulated. Another person that mixed with white supremacist circles is Tony Hovater, He is a founding member of the Traditionalist Worker Party, living an ordinary life with his wife in middle class suburban America. Hovater and his wife are a low-key couple, they shop at Target, enjoy watching Seinfeld repeats, eat at local restaurants, and have four cats.
Why is all this relevant? Because these facts were stated as part of a very sympathetic portrayal of Hovater in the New York Times. The NYT, arguably one of the most important newspapers in the English-speaking world, provided a supportive account of a neo-Nazi and white supremacist.
There is no question regarding the fascistic character of Hovater’s beliefs – an admirer of Hitler, Hovater denied the Holocaust and believed in the aims of the ultra-rightist protesters at Charlottesville last year. The NYT published a semi-apologetic explanation regarding the essay after receiving heavy criticism. In its sympathetic portrayal of the Hovater couple, the NYT was correct in one way – white supremacy is not the exclusive province of country-bumpkins and ignorant yokels. Virulent racism was built and is maintained by normal, low-key suburban people living mundane lives in clean-cut towns across America.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) does not mince words – the Alt-Right is killing people. That is the title of a report issued by the SPLC detailing the increasing murders and attacks committed by the ultra-right. 2017 witnessed a sharp increase in racist attacks and hate crimes. The Trump administration has studiously ignored the terrorist violence of the ultra-right, and in many ways facilitated its spread by engaging in hateful rhetoric and anti-immigrant measures. The internet and social media has exponentially increased the availability and dissemination of white supremacist propaganda.
Nicole Colson, writing in the Socialist Worker magazine, makes a salient point:
If more than 100 people across the U.S. had been killed or injured in multiple attacks by people with ties to reactionary Islamic groups–or if such groups were heavily recruiting on college campuses and distributing flyers calling for violence–you can bet the Trump administration would be promising action, and the FBI and every other law enforcement agency in the U.S. would be making numerous arrests.
Nothing of the sort has happened to the far right, though.
At the top of the federal government, the Trump administration continues to largely ignore the increased threat posed by the far right–except when it’s encouraging such groups, implicitly or explicitly, as when Trump himself talked about the “good people” among the white supremacists and Nazis who turned out in Charlottesville.
Alternet magazine asks why the United States, its political leaders and pundits, refuse to take the grave threat of ultra-right terrorism seriously. We wonder what the reaction of the authorities would have been if Cruz had been wearing a keffiyeh when he committed his crime, rather than a “MAGA” cap (Make America Great Again). Let us take the ideology and vitriolic effect of the Alt-Right seriously, otherwise the long line of white terrorist perpetrators will continue.