Breeders of Violence
White supremacist terrorism is rearing its head again in America, and violently, as Daniel Byman documents in his new book.
by Daniel Byman (Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $25.93)
Some of the violence we are witnessing as of late, such as the gunman who killed nineteen children in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, is inexplicable evil. And some of the violence we are witnessing, such as the gunman who killed ten people in a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, is all too explicable: the consequence of White supremacist hatred. Captured alive, the eighteen-year-old Buffalo shooter had placed a lengthy manifesto on the internet championing the Great Replacement theory, the White nationalist conspiracy theory according to which power-seeking elites are plotting to replace the White majority population with Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, and Blacks, thereby destroying the American way of life.
Formerly confined to the fringes, the Great Replacement theory has lately broken into the mainstream. It is pushed on FOX News television by Tucker Carlson—the Father Coughlin of our day—spreading xenophobia and scarcely veiled racism to a massive audience. Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigration from Mexico—“They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”—is also echoed in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto, which blasts immigration as an “invasion on a level never seen before in history.” The tragedy that has befallen Buffalo must be understood in the context of ideas already put widely into circulation. Even if only a minuscule percentage of the population is a hair-trigger away from committing violent acts, to spread such hatred on highly visible public platforms when deadly weapons are so readily available is to incite bloodshed.
Unfortunately, as Daniel Byman makes plain in his new book, Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism (2022), the problem has been with us for some time. Over the past decades, the United States and the world have witnessed a series of spectacularly bloody attacks perpetrated under the banner of racial hatred.
Timothy McVeigh, steeped in the viciously racist tract, The Turner Diaries, was a pioneer. His 1995 attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City took 168 lives, including nineteen children. A spate of imitators have followed. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed seventy-seven people in Norway, to rid Europe, as he proclaimed in his manifesto, of the scourge of Islam. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2018, Robert Bowers, agitated about “caravans” of immigrants heading to our borders, killed eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed fifty-one worshipers at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. That same year Patrick Crusius killed twenty-three “Mexican invaders” at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart.
As these outrages continue to pile up, White supremacist terrorism warrants an urgent look. The appearance of Byman’s exceedingly well researched Spreading Hate is, alas, nothing but timely. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown, Byman is a specialist in counterterrorism. Proceeding both historically and analytically in this volume, he ranges widely over his subject, with chapters devoted to the interplay between political ideas and terrorism; the impact of social media on the dissemination of White supremacist ideas; and even to more abstruse aspects of the phenomenon, like White power rock and roll. All told, Byman’s is a comprehensive account, with attention paid to Europe and particularly to the United States.
Byman begins his account with the Ku Klux Klan, the most significant White terrorist organization in our history. It has gone through three major phases. First, in the Reconstruction era, the Klan killed thousands of freed Black slaves in a campaign of untrammeled terror across the South. With the end of Reconstruction and the return of home rule, with Southern Whites again in the seat of power, the dramatic social changes propelling the hatred disappeared and the Klan shrunk.
In 1915, the Klan had a spectacular renaissance, thanks largely to the film Birth of a Nation. By the early 1920s its membership was swelling into the millions, with chapters in every state, and being more popular, as Byman notes, “outside the South than within it.” Its targets in this era were not only Blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and elites supposedly undermining America’s Protestant national character. Byman notes the Klan’s extraordinary success in the political arena. Among its members at its peak were sixteen Senators, eleven governors, and approximately seventy-five House members. But by the late 1920s and alongside of the passage of draconian immigration restrictions, the Klan once again evanesced. As Byman explains, “the Klan’s decline was a sign of the victory of its ideas: you do not need an organization to defend White power when it is so entrenched in the system itself.”
In the post-World War II era, the Klan experienced yet another rebirth stemming from the battle against integration, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Though the Klan did not regain its former strength, this did not stop its violence, which was, in Byman’s formulation “endemic for much of the Civil Rights era” with attacks on churches, synagogues, the homes of civil rights leaders, as well as beatings and floggings. Between 1954 and 1969, White supremacists murdered forty-one civil rights activists.
But once again its fortunes changed. Byman emphasizes the impact of television on the shift. Images of violence “engaged the whole nation and made Klan violence a political issue outside the South.” The pressure on Washington to act increased, ultimately forcing President Johnson to launch a crackdown on the organization. Though FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously loathed the civil rights movement, he hated the KKK as well, calling it “sadistic, vicious White trash.”
We remember COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) as the illicit FBI covert action campaign employed by the FBI against civil rights and left-wing organizations. But it was also, as Byman reminds us, directed against the KKK and other hate groups. Before long, these organizations were penetrated by FBI informants, who sought to steer the groups away from violence, using dirty tricks to discredit Klan leaders, including planting fake information about corruption and tales of sexual depravity. Along the way, the FBI helped state and local police departments weed out Klan members from within their ranks, an important development given how intertwined the Klan had grown with law enforcement in many locales. Under pressure from the FBI, the IRS, with federal criminal cases against leading Klansmen and civil lawsuits launched by the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Klan went into a serious decline from which it has not recovered.
But that is not the end of the story. As Byman recounts,
[t]he White supremacist world would adapt, though the adaptations left it weaker than it was before the civil rights era. Organizations decentralized, and smaller, covert movements came to dominate the White supremacist cause.… The smaller groups, less connected to mainstream society and with less to lose, were often more radical and more violent than their larger and more conservative predecessors.
A plethora of new organizations cropped up: Christian Identity, the National Alliance, Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, The Order. The Order was crushed by the FBI after it assassinated Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984, but White supremacist activists persisted and increasingly blended in with the anti-government militia movement in the 1990s.
This trend of decentralization and diminution in size of White supremacist groups has culminated in the lone wolf phenomenon, which is our principal problem today in the realm of White supremacist violence, together with smaller cells of extremists engaged in “leaderless resistance.” Byman notes that lone wolves may be adept at killing but are singular failures at accomplishing their far-fetched objectives. Some murder with the goal of accomplishing regime change; others, to terrify minorities into leaving the country; yet others, to establish White only enclaves; further, others have an idea of eventual victory that is “hazy: they kill with no real logic.” Whatever their motivation and goals, for obvious reasons hate-filled individuals acting on their own pose a much more difficult challenge for counterterrorism than broader movements like the Klan. As for small groups with “crazy” ideas, Byman notes their intrinsic weakness:
White supremacists must recruit, raise money, procure weapons, train their people, and otherwise be able to sustain and grow their organizations. They must do so while carrying out attacks and trying to avoid being caught and jailed. Most fail. Others survive but do not prosper, spending most of their time treading water, unable to carry out their plans.
With this weakness in mind, Byman offers a thoughtful review of counterterrorism measures enacted, past and present, and provides a number of suggestions for further actions. The only real surprise here—a serious deficit—is that he says nothing about curtailing the easy availability of weapons.
One measure Byman proposes is to focus prevention efforts on prison populations, where there are collections of “violent young men who are attractive potential recruits” for White supremacist groupings. He applauds the “deplatforming” of extremists from social media, as Facebook and Twitter began to do aggressively after Charlottesville and then again after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. More centrally, he favors increased use of intelligence gathering techniques, including the use of confidential informants and wiretaps, along with monitoring of social media posts, which “are often a significant source of intelligence.” He recommends stepped up law enforcement measures, in particular, using the charge of “conspiracy,” which can be employed even if a crime is merely intended but does not occur.
Of course, there are limits to these tools. A lone gunman with no criminal past, as in Uvalde and as in Buffalo, is going to be exceedingly difficult to stop. What could be stopped is the demonization of immigrants and the dissemination of racist material via mainstream channels—the kind of propaganda that propels extremists into action. For engaging in such demonization and dissemination, Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Chairman of FOX Corporation Rupert Murdoch have lives to answer for.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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