Dylann Roof's extremism is not an aberration: There are millions across Western nations who adhere to his white supremacist views

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, why aren't we talking about how dangerous and pervasive those views are?

Published June 25, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, analysts have been busying themselves with apparently self-evident questions as to whether the atrocity was racially motivated, or constituted an act of domestic terrorism. Americans have been focused on questions about gun control and the ubiquity of the Confederate flag — with an emerging consensus that there will be little to no evolution on the former issue at this time, and token movement on the latter (the flag will likely be removed from the South Carolina Capitol … and nowhere else).

But there has been one glaring absence in our public conversation about the tragedy: namely, any meaningful acknowledgment of just how pervasive and dangerous the white supremacist views that motivated the Charleston massacre are — and not just in America, but throughout most Western societies.

This omission is shameful, not only because the victims of this massacre had dedicated their lives to exposing these ideologies and dismantling the systems, institutions and practices built around them (indeed, this is why they were targeted for assassination) — but also because this silence enables further crimes, creating a culture of complicity and complacency about the threat these groups pose to the security of Western nations, and also to the values that are supposed to define them.

A Global Jihad

Let’s be clear, the Charleston massacre was an act of domestic terrorism — the single most lethal terror incident in the United States since 2009. It is disturbing that there is even controversy as to whether it was a terrorist act, or a racially motivated hate crime. Disturbing, but typical of incidents of white terrorism. Perhaps more troubling than attempts to write off the Charleston massacre as something other than a racially motivated terrorist incident, however, are attempts to portray Dylann Roof as a “lone wolf.”

The shooter was an active part of a community and a movement — one that is both physical and online, local and global. Its ideologies are just as much a threat to the foundations of Western liberalism as those of ISIS or al-Qaida: rejecting wholesale notions like equality, tolerance and pluralism, which form the basis for democracy, international rules and norms, and human rights law. Their views enjoy much wider popular support than those of Islamic extremists, and they are just as dangerous.

Before 9/11 the worst terrorist incident on U.S. soil was the Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated by right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh.  Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by right-wing terrorism than by Muslim extremists, and a majority of these white terrorism incidents were racially motivated. In 2013 alone, the FBI documented more than 6,000 hate crimes — the majority of which were racially and ethnically motivated (predominantly against blacks, Mexicans, and Jews) — and this figure does not even include crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs who have been heavily targeted on the assumption that they are Muslims. The FBI is only beginning to track these widespread incidents as hate crimes this year, a decade and half since 9/11.

The Bureau of Justice asserts that the actual number of hate crimes perpetrated each year is probably much, much higher than the FBI is able to chronicle — likely approaching 300,000 new incidents every single year in America alone. Hate groups have rapidly expanded across the United States, an upward trajectory that began in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and accelerated further after the election of Barack Obama, and again after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the black uprisings that followed. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans participate in or are sympathetic to ethnic nationalist groups, a number of whom have formed militias to prepare for war against minorities and/or the government.  In some cases, these groups have actually infiltrated the military and law enforcement.

Roof, aged 21, also falsifies the notion that these groups are vestiges of an earlier time, reviled by contemporary youth, and condemned to extinction in the face of liberal “progress.” As a matter of fact, these groups have been increasingly effective at recruiting and mobilizing young people across the country. They have been exploiting millennial malaise in much the same manner as ISIS, not to mention the apprehension many whites feel about what immigration reform and current black uprisings may mean for them. Far from fading away, these ideologies seem to be on the verge of a significant resurgence.

And yet, when the Department of Homeland Security published a report detailing the scale and severity of the threat, they faced vicious retaliation from Republican lawmakers. As a result, the DHS no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists, and has dedicated, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity. There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The Charleston massacre was not mentioned at all during a recent House Homeland Security Committee report on terror incidents in the United States this year.

In other words, although the challenge posed by these white domestic terrorists is greater than that of Islamic extremists, political pressures prevent there from being any meaningful coordinated response. But the U.S. is far from alone in this regard.

In most Western nations someone espousing Roof’s views would not even be called a racist or a white supremacist, but instead, an “ethnic nationalist.” He and like-minded ideologues would be part of political parties and coalitions created precisely to realize their hateful agenda — and they would be enjoying great electoral success, becoming increasingly mainstream, almost regardless of which country they lived in.

For instance, many have lamented the rise of the extreme right in Israel, and the extent to which this Western nation seems to be trending toward an apartheid state with regards to its Palestinian population. Less discussed is the fact that black (Ethiopian) Jews also face widespread legal and socio-economic discrimination and persecution at the hands of their white nationalist counterparts — to include a forced sterilization program that was discontinued in 2013 after the story went viral. In protest of systematic abuses, Ethiopian Jews are currently engaged in their own analog to the black uprisings occurring across the United States, while the international media turns a blind eye to their plight.

Within the European Union the primary targets of “ethnic nationalists” are Eastern Europeans, Jews, Arabs and North Africans. But across the board, the rhetoric is the same: Minorities are depicted as invaders and occupiers stealing the jobs of “true” citizens; as “free riders” exploiting social services and benefits; as lacking “proper” Western values, rendering them intrinsically criminal and rapacious.

These white supremacists are just as deadly in Europe as in America: The most lethal terror attack in Europe over the last decade was not Charlie Hebdo, but the 2011 rampage by Anders Breivik. Over the course of his campaign he killed 77 and injured hundreds, including many children and upper-class socialites — inspiring attempted copycat attacks in the Czech Republic and Poland. In fact, according to EUROPOL estimates, more than 99 percent of terror attacks in the EU were committed by non-Muslim separatists and ethnic nationalists.

These groups communicate and collaborate with one another both within their home countries and across the West, united in the conviction that their way of life faces an existential threat, primarily from immigrants, Muslims, Jews and people of African descent.  And we are not talking about a few kooks or bad apples here or there, but perhaps millions of adherents across Western nations. In short, Roof’s extremism is not an aberration but a deeply ingrained social pandemic whose reach extends across “the West” — posing perhaps the single greatest threat to the security and values of the nations they operate in.

Yet these white terrorist organizations face little scrutiny in the public discourse, and even less from law enforcement. Instead, the very figures whose ideology informs most terror incidents in most Western nations are leading the charge against “Islamic extremism” -- with no one calling them out on this hypocrisy, let alone highlighting the profound symbiotic relationship between ethnic nationalism and Islamic terrorism.

A Shameful Silence

The killing of eight Charlie Hebdo provocateurs galvanized the West to defend its ideals of free expression, including (perhaps especially) expression of a radical nature. Leaders from around the world gathered in a show of solidarity, joined by hundreds of thousands in rallies across Europe, America and beyond. Veritable armies were mobilized online to push back against this assault on liberalism.

It is shameful that during this frenzied advocacy of Western ideals, leaders like François Hollande, Angela Merkel and David Cameron had the audacity to lecture Muslims on tolerance and pluralism, while standing side-by-side with ethnic nationalists and saying nothing to condemn their supremacist views and illiberal policies. Instead, they capitulated to these extremists, rolling back even more civil rights and liberties — especially for already-vulnerable minority populations — in the name of protecting Western values and ways of life.

Now, consider the attack on AME.

Just as much as the Charlie Hebdo casualties (or more so), the victims of the Charleston massacre dedicated their lives to advancing and protecting civil rights and liberties. They emphasized unity over division: Despite being a long-standing target for extremists, they did not have security or barricades dividing them from the public — they welcomed all with open arms, to include their eventual killer, who sat with them for an hour during their Bible study before opening fire. Sen. Pinckney and his colleagues were assassinated in the line of duty, in a direct terroristic assault against liberal notions of pluralism, tolerance and equality — and as part of a campaign being waged across the West by a loose confederation of extremist groups.

And yet where were the world leaders descending upon Charleston to hold vigil for the victims and declare solidarity with their cause? Where were the hundreds of thousands calling for the dismantling of these radical organizations and their hateful, oppressive ideology?

It is shameful that President Obama did not demand equal dignity for these champions of freedom. He did nothing to call out the scale of the problem, and dedicated no new resources to combat it. He did not call upon the world to rally behind these martyrs and their cause — or that other heads of state confront this cancer in their own societies.

Instead of focusing on ethnic nationalism, President Obama framed the Charleston massacre in terms of gun control — an issue that, by his own admission, his administration is completely unable to make progress on — and despite the fact that his proposed reforms would likely not have prevented the tragedy in question. The president further claimed that what happened in Charleston does not happen in other “advanced” nations, minimizing the widespread and growing influence of hate groups across America and the EU, and the threat they pose to the security and values of Western nations. And it is unlikely he will reverse any of these positions when he delivers his eulogy for Sen. Pinckney on Friday, however moving his remarks will otherwise be.

But as inadequate as President Obama’s response has been, those of his would-be successors were far, far worse.

It is shameful that one of the candidates to be the next president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, repeated almost verbatim the hateful ideology of Dylann Roof, comparing minorities to invaders, leeches and rapists during his campaign announcement, and getting applause for his remarks! It is shameful that the other Republican candidates have been unwilling to admit that the Charleston attack was racially motivated, despite the terrorist’s own insistence that it was. In fact, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry actually referred to the massacre as an “accident.” And it is beyond the pale that most of these Republican candidates have accepted substantial financial contributions from white supremacist Earl Holt, cited by Roof as his ideological godfather. (Holt, in turn, declared that Roof’s atrocity was motivated by “legitimate grievances.”) Or that the No. 3 ranked House Republican attended a campaign event organized by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) — a prominent white supremacist movement founded by the KKK’s former grand wizard, David Duke — and his party, the party of Lincoln, rallied behind him when the scandal came to light. Because even if policymakers do not themselves subscribe to these ideologies, they are beholden to large and mobilized blocs of voters who do.

It is shameful that the so-called Confederate flag — which was never the official flag of the confederacy and came into popularity post-Civil War largely as a result of its adoption by segregationists and white supremacists -- still flies over state capitals, even as schools, roads and other landmarks continue to bear the names of white supremacists. It is abhorrent that there is a debate as to whether this is appropriate.

Roof’s views and rhetoric are not fringe views; they are ubiquitous both in America and Europe, motivating hate crimes and terrorist incidents throughout Western societies, enabled by a culture of complicity that refuses to even acknowledge the persistence and magnitude of the problem. Failing to confront these realities is perhaps the greatest injustice possible to the victims of the Charleston massacre, but that is precisely what we all seem fully prepared to do.

By Musa al-Gharbi

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website: musaalgharbi.com

MORE FROM Musa al-Gharbi

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Charleston Shooting Charlie Hebdo Attacks Dylann Roof Emanuel Ame Church Racism White Supremacy