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How White American Terrorists Are Radicalized

They're reading the same websites, talking to each other, and killing the same targets. The lone wolves are actually a pack.
Police barricade the area surrounding the home of suspected Austin bomber Mark Anthony Conditt in Pflugerville, Texas, on March 21st, 2018.

Police barricade the area surrounding the home of suspected Austin bomber Mark Anthony Conditt in Pflugerville, Texas, on March 21st, 2018. 

When Mark Conditt was a teenager, he participated in a club called Righteous Invasion of Truth. RIOT kids were homeschooled and religious, and spent their club time playing war games, practicing weapons skills, and reading the Bible. As a community college student in 2012, he wrote blogs against homosexuality and abortion. In 2018, he planted bombs in Austin, Texas, appearing to target African-American communities, then blew himself up as police closed in. The question isn't whether Conditt was a terrorist, but where was this terrorist radicalized? More important, who else is being radicalized in the same way, and what can we do about it?

It's easy to connect the dots after an attack. A radicalized white man commits murders. Investigators dive into his past. The dots emerge in the clarity of hindsight. In the interests of preventing future attacks, though, we need a clear understanding of how white terrorism works in this country. While not organized by some kind of hierarchical conspiracy or secret cabal, these discrete acts of violence are part of a systematic campaign to terrorize and divide Americans. What's worse, it's working.

We know where Elliot Rodger, the 2014 Isla Vista shooter, was radicalized. When the Southern Poverty Law Center published its report last month on "alt-right" violence, focusing on the many incidents in 2017, the SPLC began its account with the 2014 killings by Rodger, a student at the University of California–Santa Barbara. Based on Rodger's experiences in specific online fora, the SPLC has dubbed Rodger America's first "alt-right" killer. In his writings and videos, Rodger used misogynistic and racist tropes common in the worlds of "gamergate," a forum called PUAhate (Pick Up Artist Hate), and other online spaces where he could connect with like-minded men. No one ordered Rodger to kill people, but the valorization of targeted violence permeates those communities. He ultimately murdered seven people and wounded an additional 14. According to the SPLC, Rodger's violent acts were celebrated in various online communities, including by people who went on to kill in turn. The SPLC cites other misogynist killers, but also people like Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black citizens in a Charleston church. Roof's racism appears to have intensified as he spent more and more time on the Council of Conservative Citizens' website. More recently, a pro-Trump white supremacist killed two people at his school in New Mexico, after spending five years glorifying school shooters on alt-right websites.

In 2017, Michael Hari drove from Champaign, Illinois, to Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities. There, he and two friends broke a window in a mosque and threw a pipe bomb in through the window. Hari ran a YouTube channel where you could watch him and his friends putting on ski masks and making terroristic proclamations about driving Muslims out of the country. It's not clear why they drove to Minnesota and targeted this specific mosque. Hari is also accused of attempting to bomb a woman's health clinic in Champaign. Writing for HuffPost, Christopher Mathias links Hari's organization to other anti-Muslim militias that are proliferating around the country, including The Crusaders, a group in Kansas City, Missouri, that plotted to blow up a mosque and apartment complex that housed immigrants from Somalia.

Then there are the Nazis. Atomwaffen, an explicitly neo-Nazi group, has been murdering people. ProPublica recently broke the story of the murder of a gay Jewish man by an Atomwaffen member, one of five recent murders associated with the terrorist organization. James Field, who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, idolized Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He belonged to Vanguard USA, a neo-Nazi group that combines anti-black racism and anti-semitism. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Parkland, Florida, engaged in racist rants on Instagram and had swastikas on his ammo cases. Motherboard recently reported that, while YouTube removes ISIS-related material reasonably quickly, neo-Nazi material can linger on the site for months and years.

These terrorist strains overlap and entangle, as we see in the case of Jeremy Christian. Christian had no coherent simple ideology. He read credulously from alt-right websites, contemplated Nazism, and spent time connecting with "Odinist" groups that appropriate medieval Viking mythos to support a platform of toxic masculinity and racism. In May of 2017, Christian murdered two men and stabbed a third in Oregon after they tried to stop him from harassing two young women of color wearing head scarves.

These murders, mostly committed by white American men, reveal patterns, but they're not evidence of some kind of single, secret organization dedicated to committing white-supremacist violence. That tends to puzzle people, because our conception of terrorism is linked to Islam and people of color, but also to cell-based groups like al-Qaeda: When we think of terrorism, we look for secret leaders sending out commands and planning operations. That's just not the model in this case, so when these white men kill, the media, elected officials, and law enforcement respond by disavowing connections to terrorism. These disavowals reveal a basic racism surrounding the word "terrorism," although many officials and reporters just want to keep people from panicking.

But maybe it's time to panic a little, or at least understand that these incidents are connected and require an organized response from our politicians, law enforcement, and media. 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.