by: Jonathan Greenblatt | March 19, 2019
As we count the dead massacred while worshipping in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, it’s time to recognize a painful and obvious fact – white supremacy is a transnational terrorist threat that could engulf us all.
To some, this might sound like an exaggeration. For the past two decades, law enforcement officials worldwide primarily have been focused on the Islamist extremist threat. They have pursued terror organizations like Al Qaeda or ISIS who regularly make bold pronouncements about establishing a global caliphate and whose followers have murdered thousands, the vast majority in the Muslim world. And it’s fair to say that certain governments in the Middle East have aided and abetted the rise of this threat.
Just because this is a threat, it doesn’t mean that there could not be others that also are lethal. Simply, white nationalism is a threat of growing lethality with similar global ambitions and a murderous strategy to achieve those ends.
First, we need to recognize that white supremacy is an ideology oriented around exclusion and violence.
White supremacists have killed more people in recent years than any other type of domestic extremist (54 percent of all domestic extremist-related murders in the past 10 years). They are also a troubling source of domestic terror incidents (including 13 plots or attacks within the past five years). In 2018, white supremacists were responsible for 39 of the 50 (or 78 percent) extremist-related killings in the United States.
White supremacists openly embrace noxious forms of bigotry such as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. They believe that Muslims are a mortal threat to their societies and that Jews have organized a worldwide conspiracy that seeks to commit white genocide by bringing Muslims and other undesirables from around the world into their countries. They actively advocate taking up arms to fight their enemies.
In recent years, we have seen numerous high-profile terror attacks committed by white supremacists, individuals who take inspiration from hateful rhetoric espoused by others or from high-profile acts of terror. And there is a growing history of such incidents – from Anders Breivik in Norway to Dylann Roof in Charleston to Alexander Bissonnette in Canada to Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh just a few months ago. And now the trail moves to New Zealand. The Christchurch shooter found multiple ways to invoke some of these murderers.
Second, white supremacy is an ideology that might be animated by such homicidal acts, but it also is a movement propelled by an unending stream of comments and ideas. You can see this most prominently online where their poison percolates continually often beyond public view on platforms like 4Chan, 8Chan, Gab and Discord. And yet it also frequently pops up on public sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because these platforms clearly are the spaces where they can get the most attention. This appears to be the case with a suspect in the New Zealand massacre – not only did the alleged perpetrator plan and talk about his attack on social media sites, but in a chilling development that may herald the future if we don’t act, he livestreamed the actual murders.
Efforts by the platforms to address this are insufficient. In late 2017, most major public tech companies revised their policies and practices around violent content on their platforms. Facebook added 3,000 content moderators, Google increased their content reviewers to 10,000, Reddit clarified their policies around hateful content. Yet the Christchurch shooter livestreamed the attack for 17 minutes on Facebook without moderator action, that video was then uploaded to YouTube repeatedly, while also being reposted to a community on Reddit whose sole focus was for users to watch videos of people dying.
White supremacist use of these channels is meeting with success. We see white supremacists trading ideas and swapping strategies on these platforms, working across borders in a manner that previously simply wasn’t possible. Indeed, international cooperation and influence between white supremacists has grown substantially in recent years. Foreign nationals routinely travel to America to attend white supremacist conferences and rallies. In fact, representatives from at least three different countries attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The violent Charlottesville fiasco gained attention because it was the largest white nationalist rally in the U.S. in more than 15 years. But few in the West paid attention to the annual Independence Day march in Poland that literally has been hijacked by white supremacists. Last November, 60,000 people marched, many coming to Poland from around the world.
Third, white supremacists increasingly feel emboldened by a public conversation that is trending in their direction. They see their memes and phrases finding their way into the talking points of leaders at the highest levels. When elected officials use phrases like “migrant caravan” and “open borders” or when they rail specifically against “globalists” and George Soros – these terms literally all come right out of the white supremacist playbook.
We are familiar with this phenomenon in the United States where the president has mainstreamed many of these phrases and when candidates for office espouse their links to the alt right. But we should be alarmed by the institutionalization of these movement in governments in Hungary and Poland as well as by the rise of affiliated political parties in Germany and France. All of these present challenges to longstanding notions of liberal democracy and to the safety and security of minority populations in these nations.
To push back on white supremacy, we need tech companies to step up their efforts to combat hate speech and push back on those who espouse prejudice. We need public officials to speak out in a clear and consistent fashion. But we also need law enforcement to take this threat seriously and state the obvious – white supremacy is a global terrorist threat that demands our attention before it’s too late.