PARIS—Donald Trump was right. The special pleading around the question of whether to call terrorism by radical Muslims “radical Islamic terrorism” clouded a critical issue. The fight against extremism must start with ideas, and with language that is clear and unequivocal. Which is why we should be perfectly blunt about what Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old monster of Christchurch, claimed to represent, and did and does represent, which is white nationalist terrorism.
Tarrant may have been a lone shooter when he slaughtered 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand on Friday, but he was not a “lone wolf.” He was part of a much wider movement that is every bit as extensive as Al Qaeda was when it attacked the United States in 2001, and potentially much more dangerous to the future of Western democracies.
Now, before it grows any stronger, should be the time to move against it with the same kind of concerted international focus of attention and resources that were trained on Osama bin Laden. Now is the time for a global war on white nationalist terrorism.
But that’s not likely to happen. As The Daily Beast reported on Friday, fewer than one in five FBI terror cases target white supremacists.
Nobody can claim, as the George W. Bush administration did, that “we’re going to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” because they are already “here” with a vengeance, steadily increasing their power and presence in Western democracies.
Networks of white nationalist apologists, sympathizers, supporters and facilitators—vital to any terrorist movement—are deeply embedded in the political and social fabric. They are literally the enemy within. As an apologist, it should be said, President Donald Trump is in a class by himself. Trump is “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” as Tarrant wrote in his manifesto.
The obsession with the border wall, the attempts to ban all Muslims—such measures are trending in Tarrant’s direction because Trump’s base buys into them. And when it comes to feeding the basic instincts of the base in order to hold on to power, it is not at all clear how far Trump will go.
One of the most chilling moments in the congressional testimony last month of Trump’s consigliere, the infamous Michael Cohen, came when he said, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
I have been told by a very senior former U.S. intelligence official that he is concerned if Trump is impeached and removed, the result could be violence tearing the country apart. And Trump himself likes to feint in that direction, as he did in his Breitbart interview last week.
In a weird aside, in the middle of an otherwise soporific dialogue about former House Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump declared, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
That was widely interpreted as a veiled threat of violence because, clearly, it was one.
So, if we are going to think seriously about a global war on white nationalist terrorism, we have to admit that the American president is an enormous obstacle.
But let’s say he has a radical change of heart or is defeated in 2020 and the American government decides that the time has come to remove those elements from the military and the police that Trump is talking about, those who support his thinly disguised racist agenda—because, let’s be clear, there are many of them, even if they are not in command.
Could that be done? Putting aside the treatment of the Japanese during World War II, among white people there are only a couple of precedents for such a purge in U.S. history: the removal of military officers, diplomats and other officials with real or suspected Confederate sympathies during the American Civil War (many of whom left of their own accord), and the ugly campaign against alleged communists in the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Provocateurs like Tarrant are hoping for draconian measures, looking to provoke a conflagration. “Civil war in the so called ‘melting pot’ that is the United States should be a major aim in overthrowing the global power structure and the Wests’ egalitarian, individualist, globalist dominant culture,” Tarrant’s manifesto tells us. He’s hoping “the conflict over the 2nd amendment” will lead to that fratricidal fight and “eventually balkanize the U.S. along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.”
When Tarrant writes in all caps “THE MYTH OF THE MELTING POT MUST END, AND WITH IT THE MYTH OF THE EGALITARIAN NATION” he is not coming up with his own lunatic theory, but parroting ones that have been disseminated for years by American racists, and developed into an ideology in Europe as resonant of terror today as Mein Kampf was in the 1920s.
Vladimir Putin and his ideologues are apostles of ethnic and linguistic nationalism, and promote it both overtly and covertly in Western European countries to disrupt and divide their democracies.
Parties running on anti-brown-or-black-immigrant platforms are now significant players in the politics of Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy. We know that Tarrant recently traveled to Spain, Bulgaria and other countries where there are active ultra-right movements. In Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orban is rabidly anti-immigrant and obviously anti-Semitic, the New Zealand shooter probably felt right at home.
But as the popular French daily Le Parisien headlined on Saturday morning, “49 Dead in New Zealand: Everything Started in France…”
In 2017, Tarrant came here to watch the presidential election between Emmanuel Macron, who represents everything from globalization to higher education that the Tarrant crowd hates, and far-right Marine Le Pen, who, he concluded, was just not racist enough for his tastes.
But the key to Tarrant’s thinking and to his connections is in the title of his manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” drawn directly from the work of far-right French author Renaud Camus, who has written that the fecund peoples of Africa and the Muslim world will overwhelm and replace European populations.
As the daily Le Monde pointed out, the fantasy of this sinister replacement plot originally was based on the notion that the Jews were out to diminish or subjugate the white population of Europe—a notion that endured in right-wing circles even after World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust. And it is still a common trope among Americans on the far right. When neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville in 2017, they were vowing that they would not be replaced by Jews.
But here in Europe in the 21st century, where many countries treat expressed anti-Semitism as a crime, Renaud Camus put a new spin on that replacement fable following Sept. 11, 2001, by claiming Muslims were colonizing Europe.
On Friday, Camus denied any incitement to terrorism in his own particular way. “The colonized,” he wrote, meaning the embattled white Europeans, “ought not to imitate the methods of the colonizer,” meaning the immigrants to Europe, by adopting terror tactics. “That is to become like him already and give in to colonization.”
It might be possible to silence such voices of hate. Many European governments have tried. But would that be enough to stop the spread of white nationalist terrorism?
Almost certainly not.
At the end of the day, and as difficult as the task may be, the war on white nationalist terrorism must be fought as a war of law enforcement and a war of ideas.
Police and prosecutors loyal to democratic values have to pursue investigations into white nationalist groups with the same zeal that has been applied to radical Muslim terrorist organizations.
Voters in Western nations have to understand that the fellow travelers of white nationalist terrorism are not acceptable participants in modern democracies, and vote them out, or see that they are prosecuted, or both.
And the very first step in that process is to quit making excuses or inventing euphemisms. The fight is not against conservatives, the right wing, the alt-right—it is against white nationalist terrorism and its apologists.