The Faces Of American Terrorism
I was on the eighth floor when it hit, and threw me up against a wall, and another wall collapsed on top of me. It was like the end of the world this tremendous noise and pressure against you. And I could see everything disintegrating.
There were two other workers and myself. We started crawling toward some light. But then we realized we were crawling toward the edge of the window that had blown out, and we turned around and were able to get to the only remaining staircase. And we walked out of the building.
We weren’t screaming. We were quiet, just holding on to each other and saying we were going to get out. And even when we walked out, it was quiet. — Calvin Johnson
On this calm spring day, after months of planning, two men drove a truck full of explosives into Mr. Johnson’s workplace and detonated it. The young men responsible had been steadily radicalized over the past several years and showed no remorse for the 168 lives they took that day. In their eyes, the action was righteous and necessary and they were heroes, patriots for their cause. Such conviction led McVeigh and Nichols to be responsible for the third worst terrorist attack in American history.
When asked about his motivation and the need for such targeted violence, McVeigh responded:
I waited two years from “Waco” for non-violent “checks and balances” built into our system to correct the abuse of power we were seeing in federal actions against citizens. The Executive; Legislative; and Judicial branches only concluded that the government did nothing wrong. Many foreign nations and peoples hate Americans for the very reasons most Americans loathe me. Think about that.
If the rhetoric and complaints seem familiar that’s because they are. Watching the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco while reading The Turner Diaries, McVeigh sat at the center of the America’s unholy right-wing trinity: anti-government, pro-gun, and racist. The intersectionality of these beliefs arises mostly from the original sin of the United States, slavery and the civil war we fought because of it. These modern Nazi beliefs, alongside the more general anti-government movement which pulls from the far left as well, are prolific and the domestic terrorist attacks they perpetrate are far more common in America than those by radicalized Muslims.
Since 2001, the number of violent attacks on U.S. soil inspired by far-right ideology has spiked to an average of more than 300 a year, according to a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. A 2015 survey of U.S. law enforcement groups found they consider anti-government violent extremists to be a more severe threat than radicalized Muslims. And while jihadist terrorists have killed 95 people in the U.S. since 9/11, far-right extremists have killed 68 during the same time, including the car attack in Charlottesville.
Placing an emphasis on federalism over states rights and by extension individual rights is what hate groups use as a common justification for their grievances. For many American terrorists, the Confederate flag symbolizes a proud resistance to the overreach of the federal government during the Civil War. Ownership of guns has always gone hand in hand with individual rights and the ability to protect those rights from everyone, especially the government. Lastly, racism comes from a belief that the African-American race is naturally inferior and manifests as a resistance to what they see as an artificially imposed equality that resulted from the Civil War. An insistence on racial purity and Aryan superiority are how Nazi beliefs come to be folded in alongside the rest as they flow in similar directions.
Beginning to rise again after the 2008 election of America’s first black president, the activities and public profiles of these hate groups was bolstered as a result of the campaign run by President Donald Trump. Given the right-wing trinity, it is no surprise, in fact, it was almost inevitable that when these extremist groups decided to again publicly terrorize those they hate, a Confederate monument would be involved. After years of simmering anger, the hoods have come off.
From all across the country, hundreds of white supremacists streamed into Charlottesville, VA for their weekend rally “Unite the Right.” Located in the newly renamed Emancipation Park (previously Lee Park), the rally was intended to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. August 12th was not the first time the racist and antisemitic cohorts of the ‘alt-right’ have shown up at the park, a similar rally was held several months earlier on May 13th.
Both rallies involved night-time demonstrations around the statue holding torches and evoking flashbacks to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that re-surged in the 1920’s. In fact, the KKK held a rally in nearby Justice Park in July protesting the removal of the same statue. They first gathered in Charlottesville on Friday night for a tiki-torch lit Klan rally lacking only hoods, with a larger event scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Tell me again about how they’re not really nazis
The planned rally Saturday was scheduled for noon, but a state of emergency had to be declared by 11 AM, so it was never held. American, Confederate, and even several Nazi Swastika flags were flown by the rallying groups. The shutdown of the rally by the police was necessitated by increasing violence between the white supremacist groups and those protesting Nazis and hate. Such violence has become commonplace in rallies where the “alt-right” has previously held, such as the multiple meetings in Berkeley CA. It took several hours for police to completely clear the park and disperse those involved. Two police died in a helicopter crash during these activities.
As counter-protesters were filing away from the park a silver Dodge tore down the street impacting another car and setting off a crash that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 more. Police in Charlottesville arrested a young man by the name James Fields as the alleged driver of the silver Dodge.
Video of car hitting anti-racist protestors. Let there be no confusion: this was deliberate terrorism. My prayers with victims. Stay home. https://t.co/MUOZs71Pf4
Mr. Fields was spotted earlier that day with Vanguard America, one of the white supremacy groups rallying around the park. The group denies Fields had any connection to them, saying “The driver of the vehicle that hit counter-protesters today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America,” The shields seen do not denote membership, nor does the white shirt. The shirts were freely handed out to anyone in attendance.”
Vanguard America may not claim Mr. Fields but he appears to be doing his best to claim them. It is worth taking a quick detour to note the shirts, the new supremacist uniform. Khaki pants, white short sleeve polos, and tiki torches are the trending fashion wear of the “alt-right” and that is no coincidence. The dress code of white supremacists has been shifting away from robes and hoods towards more mainstream, clean cut attire in general and more recently they also pay homage to an acknowledged icon of theirs.
President Trump was the inspiration for more than just the outfits that day, he also was part of the reason the rally was held. The rally was held to “Unite the Right,” a kumbaya moment for the primarily internet based coalition. Before President Trump’s campaign, such a gathering would not have been considered. Since his election, the “alt-right” has made significant efforts to become more mainstream and pursue political legitimacy. In line with this grasp for acceptance, the rally was not marketed as a violent, torch-bearing, hate fest, but rather a peaceful protest directed at preserving a historical monument and the heritage it represents. In reality, the gathering was never about the monument, just as the monument was never about celebrating heritage.
Monuments To Hate
While preservation of history is given as a reason for the rally, the focus of the “alt-right” was, and always has been, race. Moving to remove the monument was a direct result of the heinous race charged murder of nine black church goers in South Carolina back in 2015. Racial anger and violence are nothing new in the United States, but after South Carolina, they received more attention for a period .As a direct result, Confederate flags were removed from buildings and monuments to Confederates began to come down.
Despite claims of memorializing Civil War history most of the Confederate statues were not built after the end of the Civil War, but close to 50 years later. Two points undermine the claim that the statues were built to preserve history. First, the statues exist across the country in places that were never part of the Confederacy such as California or Arizona. Secondly, most of the statues were built during the early 1900’s, also known as the “Jim Crow” era characterized by increasingly racist laws and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Interesting to note, this 1910–1925 period of the Klan’s growth is the last time we had similar immigration levels and mainstream KKK and racist groups that forcefully resisted immigration. More began popping up during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. These are monuments to hate.
Location, torches, weapons, slogans, and attire; all were designed to intimidate. Designed to remind those who object to their proper place of what happens when they rise above their station. The monument, as the gathering held around it, is not an arbitrary instance but part of a larger narrative of terror. Terror that is mostly directed at minority groups or the police that represent the government. Just like ISIS, such movements hope that by killing innocents, they can change the world or at least righteously punish those they believe to be guilty.
A Greater Domestic Threat Than ISIS
ISIS, Hezbollah, Shining Path, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda are names that many will recognize as belonging to terrorist groups active throughout the world. Americans have been the victims of these groups, but not the main victims. Almost 20,000 civilians have been killed by ISIS in Iraq far greater numbers than anywhere else. Terrorist organizations operate mainly in their geographical backyards. Such groups do attack other countries, but radicalizing, recruiting, planning and equipping a member for a mission requires global reach and organization. It requires far simpler logistics to terrorize your local community and none of these organizations are located in the United States which has significantly reduced the amount of foreign terrorist incidents.
White supremacist attacks have been rising over that last decade and are considered a severe threat by the FBI and DHS, who warned law enforcement earlier this year. In their May 10th report entitled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” they found:
White supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement.”
Bolstering this point is a database compiled by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. According to their findings, from 2008–2016 “Far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost 2 to 1.”
Just as ISIS is worse in Syria, American domestic terrorists are far more prolific here than any other group. Not all violent incidents in the United States qualify as terrorist incidents. Incidents such as the Aurora theater shooting in Colorado, while heinous, are difficult to prove as terrorist actions rather than the work of mentally unstable individuals. Many of these crimes, however, are committed by the same demographic: white men.
America was born in revolution and as a country carries its fair share of fiery rhetoric, “from time to time the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots” for example. Such national traditions add nuance to the fairly standard mix of dissatisfaction, marginalization, and anger that forms the basis for the radicalization of terrorists. Targets for these attacks are those whose identities or beliefs disrupt the intended political or social order.
Homegrown neo-Nazi terrorists often see themselves as guardians of a world that must be preserved by the purifying or at a minimum silencing of those that stain our country’s honor. Here are just a few far-right domestic terrorists whose actions were fueled by hate and targeted with precision at their cultural and political opponents. These attacks are the monuments they raise to their hate.
Eric Rudolph planted a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics wounding 111 people in his attempt to “ confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”
Benjamin and James Williams killed a gay couple and set fire to several synagogues and an abortion clinic, insisting they were acting as instruments of God’s “judgment” and hoping to become “Christian martyrs.”
Richard Baumhammers shot five people while claiming to lead a “Free Market Party” and calling for “an end to all non-white immigration.”
Mark Stroman shot two men capping off a spree of violent crimes targeting those he perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent in the wake of September 11th. He claimed to be performing his patriotic duty since his country hadn’t done their job so someone had to.
Jim Adkisson killed two people in a Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee, claiming that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country with the aid of major media outlets.
Keith Luke raped an immigrant and went on to kill another (yes the swastika is real), intending on “killing non-whites manually” (with his bare hands).
David Pedersen and Holly Grigsby, killed four, targeting a black and a Jewish man. They were both public supporters of white supremacist beliefs.
Wade Page killed six non-violent Sikhs in their church. He was a long time participant in the white-power metal band scene and allegedly advocated for a “racial holy war.”
Frazier “Glenn” Miller killed three in a Jewish retirement community capping off decades as a member of the KKK and other groups. Weapons, hate, and politics are Mr. Miller’s interests and tools by which he attempted to create his world.
Dylan Roof shot nine black churchgoers in cold blood. He was radicalized online and stated a belief that he would get pardoned in several years when a more sympathetic President came along.
John Houser killed two women in a movie theater. He was a fan of Hitler and David Duke and a law degree holding, politics lover who had even run for local office.
Robert Dear shot three people at a Planned Parenthood as a ‘warrior for babies.’
Jeremy Christian two people on a train in Portland. Christian holds inconsistent political beliefs although anger plays a larger role, specifically anger at circumcision and Hillary Clinton.
The above picture of Jeremy Christian has always struck me as a depressing and disturbingly accurate symbol for violent domestic terrorism. He is dressed as a superhero in an American flag cape and a shirt advocating police training. All of our symbols, our cultural touchstones are present, yet twisted. Christian wears the flag of the country he seeks to save while rejecting what that flag should stand for. He acts the hero he sees himself as ignoring the villain that stares back at him from the mirror. He advocates for the rule of law while lawlessly punishing those he deems guilty.
Polite Supremacy: How The GOP Has Cultivated Hate
Democrats have not won a majority of white voters since 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act passed. While the Southern Strategy may be approaching 50 years old, its effectiveness is testified to by the central role it still plays in Republican politics. Simplified it comes to this: you must not mention race. Use economics, comments about how hard groups work, laments about “inner-city” violence, gerrymandering, Voter ID laws, but nothing explicitly about race. Unite the Right broke these rules by committing public violence in the name of white supremacy.
President Trump’s campaign of disdain for immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims (among others) beckoned these groups even further into mainstream political circles. After the DHS and FBI’s warning, rather than a condemnation and increased funding for countering violent, white supremacist domestic extremism, the opposite has happened. President Trump’s administration redirected $400,000 from an anti-white supremacist group to groups focused only on Islamic terrorism, a move spearheaded by Katherine Gorka, wife of ousted adviser Sebastian Gorka and fellow Breitbart contributor.
Watching that Dodge tear down the crowded street in Charlottesville is gruesome and terrifying. Few are those who have not come out publicly to condemn such acts and offer sympathy to the victims and their families rather than merely condemning both sides like President Trump. Were it not for the two other cars present, the Dodge would have barreled into a much larger crowd at the intersection and the casualties would’ve been significantly higher. Vehicles cause terror and make effective weapons, which are why car attacks have become a favorite method for ISIS attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
Other 2017 Vehicular Attacks 🇪🇺 🇫🇷Sept-Sorts 8/14 🇫🇷Paris Suburb 8/9 🇫🇷Paris 6/19 🇬🇧London 6/19 🇬🇧London 6/3 🇸🇪Stockholm 4/7 🇬🇧London 3/22 https://t.co/HN3DsphLyv
Such tactics were discussed and sanctioned by attendees in the days leading up to the rally. Rally organizers claim they urged non-violence, but leaked chat logs show attendees discussing weapons and tactics, with the use of vehicles mentioned multiple times. These users then went on to celebrate and defend the car attack.
It is not only ISIS who is associated with such an extreme use of vehicles, many aspects of the Republican party are as well. Six Republican legislatures have attempted to pass bills this year diminishing penalties if you strike a protester with your car. The reason for the bill, at least according to one lawmaker,
“There’s a line between protesting and terrorism, and what we’re dealing with was terrorism out there,” he then added in a later interview, “an intentional act of intimidation — the definition of terrorism”
The particular bill being referenced came about after a year of protests at Standing Rock that often blocked traffic on the highway. Whatever your opinion of the Standing Rock protests and their tactics, North Dakota’s legislature responded in such a childish and reactionary manner that you could be forgiven for confusing them with President Trump.
Republican elected officials are not the only ones to condone or at least forgive running over protesters, the rank and file of the Republican base feels similar. The “protester plow” was a popular meme on the right for some time and shared by many. It combines the popular idea that Republicans are the only ones who work and Democrats just protest and mooch of the rest of the economy with traditional cultural touchstones such as jacked up pickup trucks.
One image on a social media account is not evidence of a trend, but the idea of using cars as weapons spread to far more mainstream outlets. Fox Nation and the Daily Caller ran a video montage of cars driving through protesters back in January which they have since taken down. Conservative commentator Glenn Reynolds (USA Today, University of Tenn.) had a similar tweet last September that got him suspended from USA Today for several months.
Without this additional context headlines such as “Car Plows into Protesters” or “Young Man Drives Car into Crowd of Protesters” would seem decent if conservative appraisals of the event. Add in fellow Republicans discussing this tactic and lawmakers giving tacit approval, however, and we find a culture that at the very least says “we understand if you have to hit a protester.” Looking back it would almost be surprising, given the Republican culture, if the attack in Charlottesville was conducted using a weapon other than a vehicle.
If dealing with terrorism, foreign or domestic, were easy there would be peace in the Middle East. Effectively tackling domestic terrorism will be tough when some of our elected officials ran on platforms that cultivated and benefited from such “cultural anxiety” aka racism. Any response to domestic terror will be complex, long term, and require tackling the problem from multiple angles. An effort matching or exceeding that directed at radical Islam will be required. While radical Islam is a priority and favorite talking point of Republican politicians including the President, denunciations of this hate filled wing of their party by Republicans are often tepid at best. Specific solutions will vary but there are three main approaches to the problem of radicalization.
One solution is to treat the groups as cancer and attempt to excise them from the host culture. Such an attempt at an extreme would require violence and more moderately resemble shaming and cultural excommunication. Redirection is another tactic one often employed by union organizers. Anger is difficult to dissipate once stoked. Redirection finds new targets for that anger, say economic inequality rather than racism and proposes new non-violent methods. Redirecting anger is comparatively easy and effective, having a common enemy really does unite people. That being said wrath is indiscriminate in its targets encouraging people to punish targets you approve of has obvious downsides, deserving or not as those new targets may be.
Lastly, you have hope. Presenting a vision of a better future and working to dismantle the issues and frustrations that caused such anger and alienation. Hope, however, is a double edged tightrope. Grand promises and visions of the world can move people, but grand promises are difficult to implement and achieve. Failure or even just the perception of a broken promise will often be taken for a betrayal and tip many over the edge into violent action. All three tactics have strengths and weaknesses so a multifaceted approach that combines moderate forms of all three has been shown to be effective elsewhere to counter terrorism and could be adapted to the United States.
Incidents of domestic terrorism continue to rise in the United States and refusing to discuss the causes for tragedies such as Charlottesville precludes any effort to address them. It is one of the most difficult acts we are asked to perform as human beings, to take ownership of aspects of ourselves and our societies we condemn, to acknowledge these things of darkness as our own. It is easy to disavow racism, to claim this is not who we are, it’s far harder to admit terrorism is a part of America society as we find ourselves, just not as we want to be. The perversion of our national identity represented by these American terrorists must be addressed. We owe it to Heather Heyer and to our countless brothers and sisters who have suffered and will continue to suffer at the hands of our fellow Americans.