All acts of terrorism — all killings of the innocent — are an abomination, and one that is made all the worse when the victims are chosen for their skin color, ethnicity, sexuality or religious beliefs. In other words, when these are hate crimes rooted in pathologies shared by many others, rather than random emanations of a diseased mind. Such attacks are designed to perpetuate the most dangerous forms of hatred known to mankind: the same kind of religious hatred that produced the Thirty Years’ War, the same kind of racial hatred that produced the Holocaust, the same kind of ethnic hatred that produced the Srebrenica massacre.
Yet we do not treat all hate crimes equally. For decades, we have been understandably focused on attacks by Muslim extremists. I say understandably because 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack ever, and it was only a prelude of the horrors to come. Think of all those car bombs driven by Sunni terrorists in Iraq into crowds of Shiites. Or by Pashtun terrorists in Afghanistan into crowds of Hazaras. Or think of the Islamic State’s attempted genocide against the Yazidis. Many terrible atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of Islam in recent decades — and they have occurred not only in Kabul or Baghdad but also in Paris and Orlando.
But a focus on Islamist violence should not distract us from the growing threat of right-wing violence. While 9/11 is the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, the second-worst was Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 people. The Anti-Defamation League reports that in the United States, “right-wing extremists collectively have been responsible for more than 70 percent of the 427 extremist-related killings over the past 10 years, far outnumbering those committed by left-wing extremists or domestic Islamist extremists.” The toll of right-wing terrorism could have been even greater if the FBI had not apprehended last month the heavily armed Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Hasson before he was allegedly ready to strike against liberal politicians and media personalities. Yet the administration has slashed programs designed to combat this menace.
When we confront Islamist violence, we rightly focus not only on the perpetrators but also on their networks — on what drove them to kill. Many recent attackers in the West have been “lone wolfs” who have been radicalized from afar by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Others have been recruited by extremists in Muslim communities. We need to apply the same methodology to right-wing terrorists and root out the ideology that inspires them.
The alleged Christchurch shooter’s loathsome manifesto is called “The Great Replacement,” a common trope of white supremacists. He complained of “mass immigration” and “higher fertility rates of the immigrants” leading to “the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.” As specific motivations for the attack, he cited the death of a little girl in Sweden in a 2017 Islamic State-inspired truck attack, the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French election and the presence in France of “invaders,” meaning Muslim immigrants. Among his incoherent list of objectives, he expressed a desire to spark “a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.”
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has spoken of his own fears of the “great replacement.” Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former counselor, has voiced admiration for a racist French novel called “The Camp of the Saints” that imagines France being overrun by nonwhite newcomers. Trump himself has expressed support for Le Pen; said “Islam hates us”; praised white supremacists as “very fine people”; and warned of an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants.
Indeed on Thursday, the White House posted a grainy surveillance video showing undocumented immigrants, small children among them, crossing into the United States under the blaring headline, “This is a national emergency.” The day before, Breitbart published an interview in which Trump appeared to threaten violence against left-wing critics, saying, “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 they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
It is deeply disturbing that the purported Christchurch attacker said he supports Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” even though he does not support him as a “policy maker and leader.” Or that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, while criticizing Trump for being too soft on Jews and immigrants, echoed the president’s hysteria about Central American refugee caravans. Tellingly, while condemning the New Zealand attack, Trump has not yet said a word about its anti-Islamic motivation — a stark contrast to the way that he blames “radical Islamic terrorism” after Muslim attacks.
Trump is not responsible for what happened in Christchurch or Pittsburgh, any more than Saudi leaders who have spread Salafism across the Muslim world are responsible for specific terrorist attacks. But Trump has promoted bigotry from the most powerful bully pulpit in the world. He has balkanized the United States and fomented intolerance. It is well past time for the president to accept responsibility for his rhetoric and to tone it down. Because the wrong words can inspire the worst acts.