Sociology of the Charleston massacre: White nationalism, terrorism, “lone wolves,” and gun control

Dylann Roof’s manifesto can be read here. (Update: It seems to have been removed, but you can read a full PDF version of the document here). Roof compiles a dossier of the various “races,” their putative prospects and faults. He has stuff on Jews and Hispanics — seems mostly ambivalent toward both — but it’s obvious this white nationalist fuck was mostly preoccupied with black people. The section on “blacks” takes up more than half of the document, dwarfing all the others combined. Jews and Hispanics were not the main object of Roof’s virulent hatred, and he expressed “a great deal of respect” for East Asians.

Nothing infuriates me more than white supremacists. “Last Rhodesian.” Go figure.

“Lone wolf” as organizational strategy

Anyway, this massacre is not a matter of some deranged individual. People like Dylann Roof don’t just pop up out of nowhere, in isolation from historically-evolved social and material conditions. They are products of a racist society. So it’s a structural and systemic issue rather than an issue of one or two “bad apples.”

However, as a friend pointed out to me, the “lone wolf” description actually makes sense when it comes to the strategy that’s been consciously cultivated by neo-Nazi organizations in the US over the years. Not to unduly “individualize” this phenomenon or anything like that. This kid discovered websites online that seemed to support and further articulate his preexisting racial prejudices, and he networked face-to-face with local hate groups. But this matches the pattern of decentralized organizational behavior that’s cropped up in recent decades. My friend put it best:

The anger at the use of the term “lone wolf” to describe Dylann Roof is severely misplaced. The use of the term in this context does not medicalize racist violence, it actually deepens our understanding of it. A ‘lone wolf’ is a white supremacist terrorist that is acting according to the decentralized organizational model that neo-Nazi leaders like Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance, began to promote in the 1990s. Older American neo-Nazis, like George Lincoln Rockwell, had simply tried to mimic the NSDAP’s structure and ride the wave of 1950s anticommunism to cultural and political success. This shift in tactics was caused, primarily, by the decline of segregationist supporting institutions and politicians, including David Duke, as well as the successful infiltration of many White Supremacist groups by the federal government. Beyond transitioning to a decentralized organizational model, many neo-Nazi groups also began to deploy a whole host of entryist strategies to try and infiltrate mainstream conservative groups like the Minute Men and government institutions like the military. They also tried to repackage and, consequently, normalize their beliefs through a number of campaigns that transitioned their public views away from explicit eliminatory antisemitism, white imperialism, lynching, and eugenics and toward conspiracy theories about the United Nations, nativist opposition to immigration, criminal stereotyping, and race realism. Many of these groups also began to promote apartheid South Africa as a model for their vision of America and increasingly distanced themselves from Hitler and his followers. By not using the term “lone wolf,” antiracists end up stripping part of the recent history of neo-Nazism in the United States out of their description of this murderous fascist.

Just to reiterate, this does not in any way call into question the pervasiveness of racism in American society. Nor does it entertain the fantastic explanation of the attack as some sort of “assault on our religious liberty,” as 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum characterize the killings.  It’s pointless to psychologize this tragedy, chalking it up to mental illness or imbalance, or to attribute it to some other ideology (like anti-Christian hatred).

Terrorism and hate crime as legal categories

Clearly, the shooting was ideologically motivated: namely, by notions of racial supremacy. It was a deliberate act of terrorism targeting the black community of Charleston.

Legally speaking, however, I think categories such as “hate crime” and “terrorist” are superfluous. Not just here, but also in the case of Frazier Glenn Cross/Miller with the triple-homicide at that Jewish center in Kansas a couple years ago. I’m not suggesting that these aren’t terrorist or racist crimes. Obviously they are. Still, I’m not sure if these categories really add to the crime of premeditated mass murder. For clearly biased political reasons, the appellation “terrorist” is typically only applied in cases of jihadist violence (and not with white supremacist killings). Both are terrorist, no doubt. At the juridical level, however, this classification is mostly just tacked on in order to compound the number of years faced by persons accused of more minor crimes. Usually it’s used to threaten or punish individuals of Middle Eastern descent entrapped by law enforcement in supposed terror plots.

While we’re on the subject, a few words on this last point. Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks broadcast has pointed out an unsettling truth: since 2002, right-wing homegrown white terrorists have killed more Americans than Muslim extremists. So much for the spurious notion that foreign jihadists constitute the greatest threat to American lives.

Gun control: A diversionary canard

Obama weighed in on the Charleston incident, at any rate, with characteristically tepid remarks. For him, the main issue was one of insufficient “gun control.” Gun control legislation, in my opinion, is usually just a way for the two major American parties to rally their respective bases: rural white libertarian gun nuts for the Republicans, and bleeding-heart liberals for the Democrats. More often than not, harsher gun control laws in practice simply serve as an excuse for police to arrest more urban blacks and Latinos. Here are Alex Gourevitch’s reflections on the comments Obama made regarding Charleston, trying to frame this as a gun control issue:

The President says that Charleston was first and foremost about how “innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun.” It was also about a “dark chapter in our history,” namely racial slavery and Jim Crow. He only suggests practical action regarding the first issue, namely gun control. He doesn’t consider that this will make the persistence of the second problem even worse. I say this knowing it is possibly an odd thing to say today, but I am against these gun control responses to mass killings — racially motivated or otherwise. Gun control means writing more criminal laws, creating new crimes, and therefore creating more criminals or more reasons for police to suspect people of crimes. More than that, it means creating yet more pretexts for a militarized police, full of racial and class prejudice, to overpolice.

There is an unrecognized gap between the justification for gun control and its most likely effect. There is no reason to expect fair enforcement of gun control laws, or even that they will mainly be used to someone prevent these massacres. That is because how our society polices depends not on the laws themselves but on how the police — and prosecutors and courts — decide to enforce the law. Especially given how many guns there are in the US, we know that gun laws, like drug laws, will be selectively enforced. I can’t see gun control doing much for mass shootings, but I can see it becoming part of the system of social control of mostly black, mostly poor people that the drug war and broken windows policing has created. Gun charges already play a role in that system as it stands. There are already too many crimes, there is too much criminal law, and there is far too much incarceration — especially of black people. To the degree that all that is part of the “dark chapter in our history,” I think given the deep injustice of our society, and especially its policing practices, the actual practice of gun control will reproduce that dark chapter, not resolve it.

What happened in Charleston is a horrific tragedy. I don’t think the criminal law will solve it. I wish I had a better solution ready at hand. I don’t, though I think it would start by freeing our political imagination from instinctively reaching for the criminal law.

Maybe I’m biased because I’ve been brainwashed by the Sparts when it comes to counterrevolutionary proposals to disarm the populace. Anyway, this emphasis on gun control distracts from the real issue underlying Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black parishioners in Charleston two days ago: endemic racism. South Carolina is only a generation or so removed from having the Klan staging major rallies in cities across the state, and less than a hundred since they dropped leaflets and candy from swastika-emblazoned biplanes. Openly racist organizations may have been forced underground, and operate more according to “lone wolf” tactics, but the animating ideology behind it all, white supremacy, remains the same.

It’s a shame Sherman only got as far east as Columbia, South Carolina. Would’ve been great for him to torch Charleston as well.

11 thoughts on “Sociology of the Charleston massacre: White nationalism, terrorism, “lone wolves,” and gun control

  1. “It’s a shame Sherman only got as far east as Columbia, South Carolina. Would’ve been great for him to torch Charleston as well.”

    What an unbelievably stupid thing to say. Makes no sense in any way, given that the parishioners were Charlestonians, and the fact that the former senator (black) talked about ‘the most diverse’ group he’d ever seen at the service the next day. Not that the piece was that good anyway, although it was at least mediocre. Really crude.

      • There would be no ‘Charleston today’ if there’d been the ‘burnt one’. I definitely didn’t see any msm people (which you’d call rightwing just like the tankies) worrying about ‘butthurt whites’ on this one. You’re wrong and you know it.

  2. To be honest, I think “black people” who’d be arrested under gun laws aren’t really black. They’re the criminals who prey on black people and thus anti-black. Same goes for white thugs as well.

  3. “since 2002, right-wing white terrorists have killed more Americans than Muslim extremists.”
    Why would anyone write this? Is this some kind of weird meta-joke I’m just not getting? Because if it’s serious, this is the worst case of the optional starting and stopping fallacy I’ve ever seen.

    • Ha yes. Let’s leave out that glaring, horrendous instance of 3000 killed in order to make our thesis stand.

      It has a kind of “apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln…” quality, doesn’t it?

  4. “Ha yes. Let’s leave out that glaring, horrendous instance of 3000 killed in order to make our thesis stand.”

    The 3000 killed was a foreign terrorist attack. When it comes to a homegrown terrorist attack it would more likely be a white supremacist than an islamic supremacist in the USA.

    Also there’s been quite a long history of success of white supremacist terrorism from the KKK, which effectively kept black people down for a century or so and killed a fair amount of civil rights activists.

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