Violence is a central component of the far right. It uses violence as an organizing tactic, it praises violence as a philosophical virtue, and its vision of society would require large-scale violence to usher in. There were 20 far right murders in 2017, in addition to numerous bombings and assaults. The three incidents last week — the murder of 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue; the mail-bombings of high-profile liberal figures; and an anti-Black double murder in Kentucky — constitute one of the largest bursts of far-right violence in the United States in recent years.
The three perpetrators each came from different parts of the far right and targeted different kinds of victims. Taken together, they illustrate how the far right’s targets include a wide range of people, in terms of age, race, religion and gender. And they illustrate how violence is endemic to different factions of this movement, and not just limited to open white supremacists like neo-Nazis.
On Saturday, October 27, Robert Bowers allegedly entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and murdered 11 people aged 54 to 97, on their day of worship. He had an account on Gab, a Twitter-like social media network that’s favored by the “alt-right.” There he was a prolific anti-Semitic poster. His account’s banner featured the numbers “1488,” a neo-Nazi alpha-numeric code.
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On the previous Thursday, October 25, Gregory Bush murdered two elderly Black shoppers in and near a Louisville, Kentucky, grocery store: Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67. Confronted by an armed white man, Bush reportedly said, “Don’t shoot me and I won’t shoot you” because “whites don’t kill whites.” Just before the attack, Bush had tried to break into a Black church.
Meanwhile, throughout last week pipe bombs were mailed to 14 prominent liberal figures who are frequent targets of rage by the more mainstream far right, including Trump himself. The first was Jewish financier George Soros, who for years has been demonized in anti-Semitic terms as a “puppet master” behind liberal and radical causes. The other targets included Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Democratic legislators. Cesar Sayoc, the man arrested in connection with the bombing, is a fanatical Trump supporter whose van is covered with right-wing stickers, including one that says, “CNN Sucks” and others featuring pictures of left-leaning figures with targets on their faces.
These are just the latest attacks in a constant drumbeat of far-right violence that has reverberated through US society from its beginnings. Far-right violence did not end with the Klan attacks during the Civil Rights movement, but has continued through recent decades. A conservative count found that as of spring 2017 there had been 440 murders perpetrated by the far right since 1990. In recent years many have been single-actor attacks — including all three last week.
Both conservatives and the mainstream media downplay the extent of far-right violence. For example, almost every year the far right commits the highest number of US political murders, but one study found that attacks by Muslims receive 357 percent more press coverage. And leftist violence is only a tiny fraction of political violence. But rather than attempting to quell the violence from their more radical wing, the conservative playbook is to deny and obfuscate the issue. The first response is often to blame the left for the violence or claim it’s a false flag; failing that, conservatives will reflexively claim that violence is equal on “both sides.” It’s not.
The targets of last week’s attacks come from a range of backgrounds. For example, several of the bombing targets were heterosexual white people. Soros is Jewish, as were the synagogue victims. Many of the bomb targets were Black (Obama, Maxine Waters, Corey Booker and Kamala Harris), and so were the two supermarket attack victims. While far-right conspiracy theories and violence threats can target any opponent, it is no coincidence that these are usually members of historically oppressed groups.
The synagogue was targeted because Bowers apparently associated it with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a Jewish group that was aiding refugees. He wrote on Gab that “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” (In the neo-Nazi mind, people of color are often viewed as incapable of organizing politically, and so Jews are accused of being behind their movements.)
In the aftermath of the attack, Gab has been kicked off a number of digital services, including PayPal and GoDaddy. Similarly, after Charlottesville, a slew of digital services dropped many far-right projects. But it’s a case of too little, too late: the time to have pulled Gab was before, and not after, the murders. As the calls to cut it off made clear, there was never a shortage of open threats of violence on the platform.
Dealing with single-actor attacks is particularly difficult, since they appear to be inspired by ideas easily accessible online — and from the mouth of Trump — as opposed to being planned by a group that could be infiltrated and exposed beforehand. But conceptually, there are some steps that may help to mitigate this violence.
One, the mainstream must push back against the demonizing and conspiratorial language used by Trump and others. Mass media outlets must stop allowing themselves to be a conduit for Trump’s lies (and, in some cases, stop actively working to promote them), and cease allowing the spread of demonizing and bigoted ideas in general. For example: Twitter could remove Trump for violating its terms of service, but it simply lacks the will. USA Today had no obligation to print a recent Trump op-ed on Medicare that was filled with lies.
Two, we must push mainstream conservatives to break links with the more extreme members of their party. For example, on October 12, a Manhattan GOP club hosted “alt-right” figure Gavin McInnes. This bigot has had a long career of openly calling for violence, and afterwards, his followers (at least one of whom was at Charlottesville) engaged in a gang-style, 30-on-3 attack against counterprotesters. This powerful GOP club in a posh neighborhood should be held accountable for bringing in violent actors.
Three, we must pressure digital companies to remove content in order to burst the echo chambers where far right activists have their views reinforced and are egged on to violence. The many instances where content is removed after violence shows that outside pressure is effective in forcing platforms to do it.
Far-right violence will not go away soon. Trump is clearly fueling this present cycle, and as long as he is in power, the far right will have a large public presence in our society. But through organizing and action, the movement — and its violence — can be minimized. However, that will only happen if a larger group of people than those active at present are mobilized to work against far-right violence.