A little over thirty years ago I began studying right-wing extremists after a gang of racist skinheads in Atlanta set my Vespa scooter on fire. I was a graduate student at Emory University exploring macro-economic theory and the skinheads were routinely attacking the social justice rallies that were occurring during the Reagan administration. It seemed like the best revenge for their arson would be to go undercover to find out what made this new hate group tick. Little did I know my research would help explain the rise of white nationalism in the twenty-first century.
After nearly six years in the field interviewing racist skinheads in the United States and Europe (including some particularly nasty neo-Nazis in a beer hall in Berlin), some key findings became clear. These young men were experiencing what founding sociologist Emile Durkheim called anomie—the sense of normlessness. The world was changing socially, demographically, and economically. The authority of straight white men was no longer assumed in the new globalized landscape. Manipulated by sociopathic “leaders” in the “movement,” they were prepared to fight a race war to make their world great again. My findings were reflected in the research of other sociologists’ work, including Barbara Perry and Pete Simi. We should have seen it coming.
When the wave of white nationalism surrounding the Trump election began to make its mark, I felt like I was right back in the field. Events like the alt-right march and killing that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia and the synagogue shooting that happened in Pittsburg put my scholarship front and center. There I was on national and international news outlets, from CNN to Al Jazeera, trying to make sense of this emboldened fascism, looking for context to frame the new extremism.
The double mosque attack in Christchurch in March that killed 51 worshipers felt different. Not just because it happened in the violence-averse island nation of New Zealand. Maybe it was that I had just been to a meeting at the Muslim Education Trust (MET), a local Muslim school and mosque where we were planning a community event on the issue of Islamophobia. Maybe it was because I have two Muslim students in my Friday sociology class, from Libya and Iraq. It certainly wasn’t because there was anything unique about the attacker; research is clear: he was cut right from the white nationalist playbook, half Dylan Roof, half Timothy McVeigh.
I think it was the news about the victims that made these attacks feel different. Many of the victims were refugees who had come to New Zealand to escape the horrors of endless wars. Children were among them—Three- and four-year-olds, including a boy my daughter’s age, a refugee from Somalia named Abdullahi Dirie. He was shot in the head by the killer, who, according to reports, was on his way to a Muslim school to kill more children when police stopped him. It is next to impossible not to put your child in Abdullahi’s little shoes. But what do you do with that emotion?
The reports of the attack were relatively fresh when a community gathering was called at MET, attended by local mayors and police officials who dutifully reassured the Portland-area Muslim community that their safety was a priority. Members of many faiths led us in prayer, but I don’t think the reality of the horror on the other side of the planet had sunk in.
I got called into media rotation on CNN, where there were, of course, questions about Trump’s role in the rise of right-wing extremism around the globe. It did not help that Trump said that white nationalism was not a rising threat (Fact: It is). I managed to get this gem on a global broadcast: “Either Trump is knowingly inflaming white supremacists, a Manchurian Candidate for the alt-right, or he is completely clueless to the real threat level and growing body count from right-wing extremists. I’ll let your viewers decide which it is.”
By the third sit-down with CNN, I didn’t want to talk about Trump or guns or the looming Aryan revolution. I just wanted to talk about Abdullahi Dirie and the slaughter of innocents. That Saturday afternoon I was on with Ana Cabrera, who wanted to discuss the rambling 70-page “manifesto” of the shooter. I just wanted to talk about how it takes a sociopath to shoot children my daughter’s age in the head. And how the world of right-wing extremism is a magnet for sociopaths. If you get your kicks from cruelty, who better to idolize than Hitler? The shooter referenced various fascists (and Trump) in his rambling declaration of war on non-whites.
I’ve had a foot in this world long before I began my field work on Nazi skinheads in the eighties. I grew up around Klan members in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I know exactly what kind of bullies gravitate to that darkness. They think the earth (or America or New Zealand) belongs to them, and everyone else is an “invader.” Invaders from Mexico, from Turkey, or like four-year-old Abdullahi Dirie, from Somalia. This is “their land” and the invaders must be vanquished by any means necessary.
On that Sunday, I was a guest on a radio show in New Zealand and begged them not to let the divisive rhetoric of the United States infect their small country. Keep the focus on what unites people.
We don’t know enough about sociopathy to cure it or prevent it, but we know plenty about the world that magnifies it. Unlike our intentionally ignorant president, the counterculture of white nationalism is growing at an alarming rate. There will be more victims. Timothy McVeigh ended the lives of 19 children in a daycare facility when he ignited his truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Like the Christchurch terrorist, he did time in the sick world of white supremacy and believed the white race was “endangered.”
There is no white race, only a human race. But there is a race war and our children are being slaughtered.