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There Are No Lone Wolves

By treating each mass shooting as an isolated tragedy, we are giving mass shooters—and the toxic communities they stem from—exactly what they want.
James Otto, a 2011 graduate of Santa Fe High School, leaves flowers at a memorial in front of the school on May 21st, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas.

James Otto, a 2011 graduate of Santa Fe High School, leaves flowers at a memorial in front of the school on May 21st, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas.

The details of the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 dead are unnerving in their familiarity.

Alleged shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, reportedly posted photographs of guns and extremist paraphernalia on social media, behavior that "betrayed a growing darkness" that had enveloped the "churchgoing ex-football player and honor student" in recent months, as the Washington Post put it. Among the victims: Pagourtzis' ex-girlfriend and a female classmate who had allegedly "spurned his advances," (although that report remains somewhat suspect as of this writing).

Pagourtzis looks like just the latest in a string of sad, lonely men behind America's mass shootings. Some 40 percent of mass shootings that occurred between 2009 and 2012 were initiated by a shooter who targeted a partner or former partner; that number swelled to 54 percent by 2016. And the perpetrators are uniformly male: Of the 95 mass shootings between 1982 and 2017, only three cases—that's just over 2 percent—included female perpetrators.

Despite the overwhelming focus on gun control that follows each schoolyard massacre, it's hard to ignore the veneer of grievance-driven misogyny underlying these tragedies. Indeed, America's shooters (see: "incels") share far too many characteristics with the white nationalists who have seen a resurgence in recent years: mostly male, mostly white, furious over their perceived socioeconomic displacement at the hands of women/African Americans/Jews/Muslims, and more than happy to share that rage on the digital commons of 4chan and Reddit under the guise of irony and "lulz." Sexism and white supremacy go hand-in-hand, especially in the age of the so-called "alt-right."

At what point do we stop classifying these men as "lone wolves," and start referring to them as terrorists? "These incidents are connected and require an organized response from our politicians, law enforcement, and media," Pacific Standard's David Perry observed in March. "When hundreds of "lone wolves" are reading the same websites, talking to each other, consuming the same stories, picking up easily accessible weapons, and killing the same targets, they have become a pack."

This is no mere linguistic issue, but one of legal consequence. More importantly, it's not an issue of distinguishing between, say, "ISIS-inspired" and "ISIS-directed," which is the legal standard for pushing something into the legal realm of "terrorism." Instead, it's a reminder that the whole idea of "lone wolf" is absolute fiction in the first place.

In a story on white-nationalist institutions published the day of the shooting, Elizabeth King and Aaron Cynic offer an important reminder that the term "lone wolf" is a product of American white nationalism. The idea was introduced by Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations leader Louis Beam in a manifesto on "leaderless resistance" in the 1980s, which argued that "very small or even one-man cells of resistance ... could combat the most powerful government on Earth." The term was then more-formally coined by outspoken white nationalists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger and pushed by groups like the White Aryan Resistance in the mid-1990s. Their  reasoning was simple: After several high-profile crimes committed by organized white supremacist groups during the '70s and '80s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had started getting tough on "coordinated forms of militancy," as neo-fascism researcher Mike Isaacson told King and Cynic. Decentralized "lone wolves" allowed white supremacists to to thwart conspiracy statutes. And it worked.

ISIS didn't pioneer the modern lone wolf attack through social media-enabled propaganda; they got it from America. Here's King and Cynic on how white nationalist groups evolved into ideological honeytraps designed to lure and convert young minds:

Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute serve to help legitimize white supremacist and nationalist ideologies and make it easier for white nationalists to share their messages with a broader audience. By dressing up right-wing extremism and bigotry in the trappings of traditional academic disciplines, dangerous ideas such as eugenics can gain footholds closer to the mainstream. ...

"Bear in mind that when you talk about American Renaissance and you talk about even the [white supremacist] Council of Conservative Citizens ... these were mainstream organizations at one point," says Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of One People's Project, an organization that researches and monitors the far right. "You used to see them on C-SPAN all the time, the [American Renaissance] conference was broadcast on C-SPAN," he recalled.

We can see this phenomenon working again in the so-called "incel" communities. The last few years have yielded an uptick in masculine rage, and the culture has modeled a world of misogynistic abuse without real consequence. A single man with a shotgun may be acting alone in the crime, but the ideas that twisted him into something so antithetical to modern society came from somewhere else.