My grandmother used to speak of Klansmen riding through Louisiana at night, how she could see their white robes shimmering in the dark, how black people hid in bayous to escape them. Before her time, during Reconstruction, Ku Klux Klan members believed they could scare superstitious black people out of their newly won freedom. They wore terrifying costumes but were not exactly hiding — many former slaves recognized bosses and neighbors under their white sheets. They were haunting in masks, a seen yet unseen terror. In addition to killing and beating black people, they often claimed to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers.
You could argue, of course, that there are no ghosts of the Confederacy, because the Confederacy is not yet dead. The stars and bars live on, proudly emblazoned on T-shirts and license plates; the pre-eminent symbol of slavery, the flag itself, still flies on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol. The killing has not stopped either, as shown by the deaths of nine black people in a church in Charleston this week. The suspected gunman, who is white and was charged with nine counts of murder on Friday, is said to have told their Bible-study group: “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Media outlets have been reluctant to classify the Charleston shooting as terrorism, despite how eerily it echoes our country’s history of terrorism. American-bred terrorism originated in order to restrict the movement and freedom of newly liberated black Americans who, for the first time, began to gain an element of political power. The Ku Klux Klan Act, which would in part, lawmakers hoped, suppress the Klan through the use of military force, was one of America’s first pieces of antiterrorism legislation. When it became federal law in 1871, nine South Carolina counties were placed under martial law, and scores of people were arrested. The Charleston gunman’s fears — of black men raping white women, of black people taking over the country — are the same fears that were felt by Klansmen, who used violence and intimidation to control communities of freed blacks.
Even with these parallels, we still hear endless speculation about the Charleston shooter’s motives. Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina wrote in a Facebook post that “while we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Despite reports of the killer declaring his racial hatred before shooting members of the prayer group, his motives are inscrutable. Even after photos surfaced of the suspected shooter wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa and leaning against a car with Confederate-flag plates, tangible proof of his alignment with violent, segregationist ideology, his actions remained supposedly indecipherable. A Seattle Times tweet (now deleted) asked if the gunman was “concentrated evil or a sweet kid,” The Wall Street Journal termed him a “loner” and Charleston’s mayor called him a “scoundrel,” yet the seemingly obvious designations — murderer, thug, terrorist, killer, racist — are nowhere to be found.
This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. The white terrorist exists solely as a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.
I’m always struck by this hesitance not only to name white terrorism but to name whiteness itself during acts of racial violence. In a recent New York Times article on the history of lynching, the victims are repeatedly described as black. Not once, however, are the violent actors described as they are: white. Instead, the white lynch mobs are simply described as “a group of men” or “a mob.” In an article about racial violence, this erasure of whiteness is absurd. The race of the victims is relevant, but somehow the race of the killers is incidental. If we’re willing to admit that race is a reason blacks were lynched, why are we unwilling to admit that race is a reason whites lynched them? In his remarks following the Charleston shooting, President Obama mentioned whiteness only once — in a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. intended to encourage interracial harmony. Obama vaguely acknowledged that “this is not the first time that black churches have been attacked” but declined to state who has attacked these churches. His passive language echoes this strange vagueness, a reluctance to even name white terrorism, as if black churches have been attacked by some disembodied force, not real people motivated by a racist ideology whose roots stretch past the founding of this country.
I understand the comfort of this silence. If white violence is unspoken and unacknowledged, if white terrorists are either saints or demons, we don’t have to grapple with the much more complicated reality of racial violence. In our time, racialized terror no longer announces itself in white hoods and robes. You can be a 21-year-old who has many black Facebook friends and tells harmless racist jokes and still commit an act of horrifying racial violence. We cannot separate ourselves from the monsters because the monsters don’t exist. The monsters have been human all along.Continue reading the main story
WASHINGTON — AFTER a terrorist attack like the one in Florida on Sunday, one of the first questions people always ask is: Why? Why would someone take the lives of innocent civilians who are total strangers? That is a question to which I have long sought an answer. But my search has led me instead to another question: Is an answer even possible?
To try to figure out why terrorists do what they do, researchers at the think tank New America and I reviewed court records in more than 300 cases of people charged with jihadist terrorism in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, ranging from relatively trivial cases, like sending small sums of money to a foreign terrorist organization, to very serious ones, like murder. I have also spoken to terrorists’ families and friends and even, in some cases, to the terrorists themselves.
The easy explanation — that jihadist terrorists in the United States are “mad” or “bad” — proved simply wrong. Around one in 10 had mental health problems, below the incidence in the general population. Nor were they typically career criminals: Twelve percent had served time in prison, compared with about 11 percent of the American male population.
I found that the perpetrators were generally motivated by a mix of factors, including militant Islamist ideology; dislike of American foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often was precipitated by personal disappointment, like the death of a parent. For many, joining a jihadist group or carrying out an attack allowed them to become heroes of their own story.
But in each case, the proportion of the motivations varied. For instance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, was a nonpracticing Muslim who became an Islamist militant once his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxer faded. At the time of the attack, he was unemployed. For him, bombing the marathon seemed to allow him to become the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.
On the other hand, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, never seemed to embrace militant Islam. He smoked marijuana, drank and chased girls — hardly the actions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivations for the bombings were instead largely molded by his older brother, whom he admired and feared, and by his own half-baked opposition to American foreign policy.
Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, seemed to be a more classic jihadist. He was a highly observant Muslim who objected to American foreign policy. But according to Nader Hasan, a first cousin who had grown up with him, the massacre at Fort Hood was also motivated by Nidal Hasan’s personal problems. He was unmarried, both his parents were dead, he had no real friends and a dreaded deployment to Afghanistan loomed. “He went postal,” Nader Hasan told me, “and he called it Islam.”
David C. Headley of Chicago, who did much of the planning for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people were killed, was not an observant Muslim. He juggled multiple wives and girlfriends. He was motivated more by a passionate hatred of India — and his enjoyment in playing the role of a jihadi James Bond, hanging out with Bollywood stars for cover while secretly planning one of the most spectacular and deadly terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001.
These stories underline how hard it is to satisfactorily answer the question of why terrorists commit heinous crimes. Human motivations are complex. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, “From the crooked timber of humanity not a straight thing was ever made.” It’s a useful reminder to journalists and politicians alike that human beings often defy neat categorization.
Given this, how should law enforcement respond? F.B.I. behavioral analysts use a smart framework. They focus on behaviors that show that someone is on what they call the “pathway to violence.” The ideology enabling this pathway is a secondary concern; whether they are dealing with neo-Nazis or jihadists, F.B.I. analysts use actions, not ideas, to determine whether someone might carry out an attack. This approach is agnostic about the “Why?” and focuses on the “What?”: what a suspect of any ideological stripe might be doing along the pathway to violence, like scoping targets or acquiring weapons.
Of course, this is imperfect. Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman, had been investigated by the F.B.I. twice. But at the time he didn’t appear to be far down the pathway to violence. According to reports, he began scoping out the Orlando nightclub, assembling weapons and trying to buy military-grade body armor only in the weeks before his attack.
We are learning bits and pieces about Mr. Mateen’s possible motivations. Relatives say he expressed homophobic views. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during the attack. Co-workers say he also praised Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. His former wife says he was abusive and couldn’t control his temper. There have also been suggestions that he might have been gay.
No doubt we will learn more in coming days. But it’s unlikely that anything will ever really explain why he did what he did. Perhaps that says something about the nature of evil, — that it is ultimately not fully explicable. Even the perpetrators themselves can never really articulate “Why?” in any meaningful way.Continue reading the main story