In the months following the attacks on New Zealand mosques on March 15, and the days since charges were brought against the alleged shooter in a Poway, California synagogue, there has been a rigorous debate as to how society should treat the ideas that inspired the hatred fueling these alleged attackers.
Many have advocated for doing everything we can to deny mass shooters the notoriety and infamy that they so clearly desire. This is accomplished by refusing to name them on television and by not reading the manifestos they often leave behind. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, refuses to name the Christchurch shooter, and this USA Today op-ed advises against reading his manifesto, instead opting for a larger public focus on remembering the victims.
While this instinct to deny murderers such as the Christchurch or Poway shooters fame is admirable, it does not consider the need to fully understand the ideology that motivates them. This method fails to acknowledge that public galvanization against the ideological virus of white-supremacy is necessary for an effective response.
In 2016, more Americans were killed by a white-supremacist or far-right terrorist than an Islamic one. One might not think this is the case, however, based on common conversations and beliefs regarding terrorism. After Sept. 11, 2001, our generation grew up scared of Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, and we all know the names of organizations like al Qaeda and the Taliban. But do we know the names of the white-supremacist ones?
This misconception has been dangerously co-opted by the Trump administration to promote Trump’s “America First” ideology. Whether it is President Trump’s initial refusal to condemn Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, his administration’s fear-mongering over the non-existent threat of Muslim refugees, or the fact that the FBI has apparently been investigating so-called “Black Identity Extremists,” this government clearly has no intention of prioritizing the issue of rising white-supremacist violence.
If anything, the President has a vested interest in keeping Americans ignorant of far-right terrorists, as he instead often tries to use the perceived threat of Muslims and immigrants to scare Americans into supporting his racist policies, such as the proposed Muslim ban.
It is essential to push back and appeal for our government to respond to the more serious national security threat: white nationalism. But how can we do so if we know little about this danger? How many of us know the names of the most popular white-supremacist organizations in the country? What do we know about their beliefs, or how they spread these beliefs online? We have been exposed far less to these groups than to al Qaeda, despite them being far more likely to actually cause us harm.
To be sure, a campaign to educate Americans about the rising popularity of white-supremacist ideology runs the risk of inspiring copycats, but I would argue that some sort of public campaign is necessary if we want the government to do anything about this issue. Additionally, I for one am not worried about this government overreacting to the threat of white supremacy the way the Bush administration overreacted to the threat of al Qaeda.
Whether it is Poway, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, or Charleston, these attacks are not isolated incidents. These terrorists may not be part of a larger organized group the way the 9/11 perpetrators were, but they are all motivated by a similar ideology that must be confronted in the public domain, not banned from our discourse.
Those who seek these disgusting ideas will always be able to find them in the dark corners of the internet, and it is therefore the responsibility of the media and citizens in general to confront and defeat these beliefs out in the open.
It is naive to think that white-supremacist outlooks have been eliminated already within our society. To continue to treat each of these attacks as an isolated incident, while maintaining that the age of violent racism is long over, only serves to maintain the status quo and empower those who would rather have us fearing needy refugees instead of domestic terrorists. We must treat this as a pressing, dangerous problem that must be addressed by both the government and the public without delay. The only way to motivate any kind of government response is not through ignoring these terrorists’ beliefs, but through educating citizens of their pervasiveness within American society, and how we must always be vigilant to their resurgence.
As students who spend most of our time in the fairly liberal, cosmopolitan environment of Princeton, it can be too easy to dismiss white supremacy as a dying movement with a negligible number of adherents. It is crucial to recognize the uncomfortable fact that they remain appealing to many within the U.S, and that ignoring them has dire consequences.
Ben Gelman is a first-year from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.