I saw the headline on my phone’s home screen as we made our way to the Loop (Chicago’s downtown) for an early al-fresco dinner on the Riverwalk, and a concert at Harris Theater in Millennium Park. I read “Multiple Victims in El Paso Shooting,” and did not read further. We have an unspoken agreement to keep our Internet and social media use to a minimum when we are out together. It was a beautiful evening. It is a good rule.
A little before 7:00 pm, we made our way to the theatre, at the north end of the park. We could hear the thump, bump, and grind from the Lollapalooza festival, playing on the outdoor stage, about a quarter of a mile away. As we descended into the Miller Theater’s auditorium, I commented that “it’s a good thing it’s underground; it’ll be pretty well soundproofed.”
We laughed. The Grant Park Orchestra performed a glorious program featuring Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), and Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, “Prague.” Afterward, we walked south along Michigan Ave., watching tens of thousands of young, happy festival goers in short shorts, Dr. Martens, and glitter makeup stream out of Millennium Park.
The Harris Theater’s design not only insulates against outside noise, it also blocks wireless signals. So, I did not receive the stream of social media notifications as my friends learned of, struggled with, and tried to make sense of the news from El Paso, as the true enormity of the massacre, and the motives of the gunman became clear. I began to read their comments on the L-Train from the Roosevelt CTA station, heading home for a snack and a nightcap.
A little after 5:30 pm, as we had been picking up our order from a restaurant two blocks from the Riverwalk, Joe Amato had posted an expression of horror:
I want my… I have a right to… You can’t stop… We can’t…
Fuck this shit. At least 19 dead, 40 injured, countless lives ruined forever. We can do better than this.
I didn’t read it, of course. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we walked up to the River, and the down the stairs at the Wells Street bridge. We looked for a place in the shade to enjoy our meal. At about 5:40 pm, Amanda Lee Savage posted her anger and disbelief:
I don’t understand how a mass murderer can be taken into custody “without incident” but black and brown people cannot.
I don’t understand why our politicians and leaders are not taking the threat of white nationalism more seriously.
A little over an hour later, as we rode the elevator down to the Harris Theater auditorium, Matthew Leber further elaborated the point:
Texas is the gun lovers wet dream, right? Where all the good guys have guns? But apparently a white dude can still kill 20 people and be taken ALIVE? I’m so confused. I woulda thought one of ya big mouth gun lovers woulda done your hero thing…but nah. The cops prolly stopped to get dude some brisket on the way to the station… Funny how black people in Walmart get killed for shopping for air rifles, but a white dude can shoot the place up and come out alive.
My social network was awash in horror, exasperation, and frustration; here we were again, talking about a man (always a man) mowing down dozens of people with an assault rifle again. We only had to wait for the crocodile tears of “thoughts and prayers” to flow from our national leaders’ eyes. Indeed, President Trump did send his “heartfelt thoughts and prayers,” typically tone-deaf to the ludicrousness of the phrase, in a tweet at 11:19 pm.
The thought had crossed my mind, when I learned that the shooter had been apprehended alive, that he must have been white. I might have rolled my eyes at the thought that the police employ two standards of lethal force in the United States: one that authorizes them to murder people of color for parking tickets and selling illegal cigarettes, and one that mandates the utmost restraint dealing with white, male, mass murderers.
That it all played out again, in exactly the same way again, like some kind of ritual mummer’s play, is only to be expected. And it is merely absurd. This is just how we do things, as Allie Graham noted:
I’m no longer shocked when mass shootings occur. I’ve become numb.
I’m just sad, and very very disappointed with this country.
Although I was offline at the time, and did not take note, there was a noticeable shift in my social network’s tone just before 7:30 pm, as the orchestra tuned up in preparation for the first piece on the program, Jennifer Higdon’s tone poem “The Blue Cathedral,” a meditation on mortality she composed in memory of her brother. Despair and frustration suddenly gave way to anger and abject horror, as the shooter’s motives and intentions became clear. He had posted a brief manifesto on the far-right social media site 8chan. Richard Steigmann-Gall, a scholar of the Nazi rise to power, could not restrain his rage:
Another mass murder by a white nationalist lunatic who proudly touts his ideological commitment to stopping biracialism, in the belief that it is a form of “white genocide.” Another racist who believes he was doing his race-community a favor by killing as many brown people as possible – and proudly wears that belief as a badge of honor. Another taker of innocent life who proclaims the president of the United States as his inspiration. And another day when not a thing will be done to stop gun violence.
It’s as though we found the perfect recipe for committing genocide in 2019; decentralized mass murder without a Führerbefehl, with a Führer who sheepdogs the murderers in their racist crimes and then proclaims his shock when they commit their shamefully predictable acts.
Alan Conter agreed. The shooter did not act alone. We feel horror at the specter of bloody corpses and broken bodies on the floor of that Walmart in El Paso; we feel horror, too, at the bloodthirsty complicity of the smirking strongman’s politics of white supremacist hate and violence. Conter wrote:
But “very fine people on both sides” dixit 45 re his white fascist base.
Can we call this what it is? This afternoon, with what can only be called stunning percipience, law enforcement officials announced that they would investigate the El Paso rampage as domestic terrorism, and a possible hate crime. In light of the shooter’s manifesto that much is to be expected. But this is no isolated case.
The murder of Alan Berg in 1984 by a neo-Nazi group called the Order was so exceptional at the time that we talked about it for decades. The Oklahoma City bombing 11 years later, was just as unexpected, and exceptional. Bomber Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government militia fellow-traveler with close ties to the Christian Identity compound at Elohim City, OK, initially slipped through the police dragnet because authorities convinced themselves that they were pursuing a Middle Eastern suspect. The mere thought of a white, domestic terrorist was, at first, unimaginable.
It should no longer be so unthinkable. Over the last few years, terror attacks by white, Christian, white nationalist fascists have become so common, happening with such a grim, relentless regularity, that it can be difficult to remember them all. Charlottesville, Bloomington, Orange County, Escondido, Pittsburgh, Poway: these were not isolated events, and their perpetrators were not the “lone wolves” that conservative politicians and media would like us to think. If Christchurch showed us anything, this terror network is both well-connected and motivated by shared goals and values.
Virtually all are motivated by the ideas, if not the exact text, of the “Fourteen Words,” a neo-Nazi incantation penned by David Lane while has serving a 190-year sentence for his part in Berg’s murder: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Think about that; these words appear, often verbatim, in the manifestos, statements, and social media postings of all of these terrorists, from the El Paso shooter, to Robert Bowers, to Dylann Roof, and beyond. This was the sentiment articulated by the “good people” who marched in torchlight chanting “you will not replace us… The Jews will not replace us.” This is the all-too-audible dog-whistle the president blows when he whips his audiences of angry white people into a shrill chant of “send them back.”
None of it is an accident. And it is happening more often. Taking inspiration from the proto-Nazi text Might is Right, a young white man armed with an assault rifle murdered three people – including two children – and injured 12 more just one week ago. Mere hours after the massacre in El Paso, another shooter murdered nine more people at a western-themed bar in Dayton, OH. The authorities have declined to speculate on the shooter’s motives, or to call it domestic terrorism. This is disingenuous; the shooter was armed with an assault rifle, and wearing body-armor – it was clearly planned – and, with exception of his own sister, virtually all of his victims, at a country bar in a majority-white city, were African Americans.
None of this is coincidental. We need to call this what it is, and a social media friend shared an article from an Australian newspaper that does just that: we are in the midst of a white nationalist terrorist crisis. This has been a year of constant, and rising extremist violence, and every political murder in the United States in 2018 was committed by a white, right-wing terrorist.
I wish I could say that these latest atrocities marked a turning point, that they marked the end of this crisis of violence, but that would be a lie. All El Paso, and Gilroy, and Poway, and Pittsburgh have shown us is that the white, racist terrorists take almost as much inspiration from each other as they do from the president himself. They read each other’s manifestos, and express their mutual admiration and respect, going back to Anders Breivik’s manifesto and the “Fourteen Words”. Theirs is a crusade, a holy war in the name of racial purity. They are not about to stop.
I awoke this morning from a fitful sleep, haunted by the news of the night before, and shocked to learn of Dayton. Looking at the El Paso shooter’s image, captured by the Walmart security camera, I noticed that, unlike most of his white terrorist brethren, he was not armed with the usual AR-15 assault rifle. Morbidly curious, I did a quick check for the weapon he used. It was a GP WASR-10, a Romanian-made copy of the Kalashnikov AK-47.
I visited a handful of online gun shops to see what such a weapon would cost, and found that the going price was about $750. That was at 7:30 am. I checked again at 9:30 am, and every online gun shop I visited now had this assault rifle on sale, with significant markdowns. At 7:30 am, one shop had “10+” GP WASR-10s in stock. Two hours later, they had three left. They sold at least seven in two hours on a Sunday morning.
This will only get worse.