Experts who study far-right mass violence must center the communities affected

If we do not center the experiences of those impacted, and learn from their insights and their perspectives, we will get it wrong — not only morally, but intellectually, too.

Some mass shooters’ motives are easy to locate on a political spectrum — like the shooter who killed ten Black supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, New York last May, who candidly called himself a white supremacist. Others scatter a trail of confusing debris that leaves us wondering, picking up the pieces, as we mourn and process the rage, trauma, and one more time, the fear.

But, every time, a mass shooting leaves behind communities that will never be the same.

In understanding a mass shooting, and even in assessing the motives of a shooter, we must strive to be victim-centered and to begin from a position of solidarity with impacted communities. These are nice-sounding words, but they are not mere sentimentality. Being victim-centered is not just about feeling grief or memorializing the dead. It includes lifting up the voices of those most impacted and fighting (alongside them) for them to have more power. It includes shifting the balance of power in fields of study devoted to understanding violence and far-right movements.

If we do not center the experiences of those impacted, and learn from their insights and their perspectives, we will get it wrong—not only morally, but intellectually, too. By relying too much on an “expert” analysis distant from impacted communities, recent media coverage failed to accurately explain a mass shooting in Illinois. As I will also share, I made a similar mistake at a recent community forum.

On July 4, the shooter at the Highland Park, Illinois, Independence Day parade killed seven people and wounded dozens. Among the survivors was a two-year-old child who lost both parents in the attack. Many of the victims were Jewish.

Before the shooter was even identified, many wondered if he was motivated by fascist or far-right ideology. Besides the uptick in mass shootings by racists, there was also the fact that Highland Park is heavily Jewish, suggesting antisemitism as a motive.

Additionally, the drama of the scene—the “aesthetic” choice of attacking a Fourth of July parade, as though to demonstrate an image of the United States of America in chaos — immediately sparked the interest of those who study far-right and other political violence. They recognized the possible markings of the kind of violence some researchers have termed “accelerationism,” indicating that the perpetrator intended to sow chaos, to destroy and reset the world. (This strategy has been promoted by a dangerous international network of neo-Nazis called the “skullmasks,” who affiliate with a shifting set of organizations known by names like Atomwaffen Division and the Base.)

As we waited for more information about the shooter, the usual pleas on social media followed. People urged each other to fact-check claims, not to amplify the shooter’s social media posts, and not to share violent footage that could traumatize some and inspire future shooters.

And, louder this time than usual, people urged: ”Please, please, please listen to the experts.”

This one is complicated,” many said (including some of the experts hoping to be interviewed). “Don’t assume you can fit this shooting into an easy ideological box,” they warned journalists.

The public have become used to the words we hear in the media after a mass shooting. There are always the friends and neighbors who say that the shooter, if a young white man, always seemed “friendly,” “normal.” (Highland Park’s mayor was the shooter’s former Cub Scout troop leader, we were told.) Then, others always add a different story: We saw this coming, we tried to raise the alarm, and no one listened! We waited helplessly for him to hurt someone.

We are also accustomed to the pundits, experts, media, and police all stepping in to offer their analyses and categorizations. Their words never quite capture the horror, and leave us cold—“completely random,” “non-ideological,” “lone wolf.”

The words we use to describe mass killing matter. The categories we use shape our response, including how we will tend to the harm the shooting caused. Who we choose to “humanize”—the shooter or the victims—matters. And whether we interpret mass shootings as a fringe criminal phenomenon, or as products of deep societal injustices, will shape the demands and policies that follow.

In response to the Highland Park shooting, many in the media did what was requested: They trusted the experts. These experts told them — or at least the media heard — that the shooter was not motivated by “ideology.” Instead, the media reported, he was motivated by a destructive Internet culture that exalts death, violence, and despair; revels in “gore”; relies on stereotypes of mental illness to meme about being “schizo”; and embraces nihilism and the destruction of the world.

This was an “aesthetic,” it was suggested, but not an “ideology.”

I recognized this answer very well. I winced when I heard the distinction between “aesthetics” and “ideology.” I cringed when I saw how NPR tweeted out the article: “It appears that the Highland Park shooting suspect has no ideological or political bent.”

To be clear, I know very little about this shooter. I hesitate to offer any assessment. Perhaps someone has now uncovered some screed he wrote online, or maybe the FBI is now reading a pile of his childhood diaries. Some people know more than me because they are more willing or able to subject themselves to the worst parts of the internet for extended periods of time. Others have more information because of their greater access to power, like connections to law enforcement. The uneven access to and emotional capacity for this information are among the factors that feed reliance on experts.

Nevertheless, here are some things the public has heard that seem relevant, especially to the question of “ideology”:

  • The shooter made racist and antisemitic posts online.
  • The shooter had a Discord (the online gaming chat platform) discussion space that he named “SS” — like the Nazi SS.
  • The shooter participated in Trump rallies (in one case wearing a goofy “Where’s Waldo” costume) and posed with Trump gear, a rare act in such a liberal community.
  • The shooter used imagery online evoking “Nazi catboy” culture.
  • The shooter spent time in “schizoposting” and “gore” internet spaces that are filled with Nazis.
  • A progressive activist from Highland Park remembers him from intimidating protests where Trump supporters called Black Lives Matter “monkeys” and gave Nazi salutes. She believes he was part of a racist militia group that doxxed her.
  • The shooter allegedly scoped out a synagogue on Passover: dressed all in black, lurking for a long time, as though there to assess possibilities for violence.

Some of this information is known to the public thanks to the experts. But some of this information, especially the last two bullet points, we know because people in Highland Park—staff at a Chabad synagogue, and progressive activist Rachael Wachstein—shared their perspective with the public.

Writing in The Forward, a Jewish news site, Elad Nehorai expressed frustration that so much of the media coverage only called Highland Park “white” or well-off, ignoring the possibility of antisemitic targeting. He thought calling the event “non-ideological” denied the reality of Highland Park’s association in the public imagination with Jewishness; the racist and antisemitic track record of the shooter; and his own family’s fear that their relatives were killed in the shooting.

He spoke to one of the experts quoted in the earlier media coverage, who agreed with him that the community’s fear needed to be highlighted, and that ideology and bigotry are part of the online subcultures that shaped the shooter.

A note on the term “ideology”: I was familiar before this shooting with an interpretation among some researchers that “accelerationism” is not ideological, or even “anti-ideological.” Defining the word “ideology” is complicated, and I am not sure that all of those who claim accelerationism is not ideological share the same definition, and some may not even have one.

But I will say this: A large amount of what gets grouped by some people under the heading of “accelerationism” and then called non- or anti-ideological is an ideology that’s been around for quite a while.

That ideology is called fascism.

Fascism has always valued aesthetics over rationality, envisioned the destruction of the world as a way to reset society back to past hierarchies, and relied on a bullying form of irony, insincerity and snark.

It has often co-opted ideas and tactics from outside its purview, including stealing ideas and tactics from the left. This does not make fascists any less fascist. And most people would consider fascism an ideology, even if it is other things as well, such as a social movement seeking power.

Instead of asking whether specific kinds of shooters are ideological, I would like to ask: Are there any mass shootings that are not ideological? And what about the media’s designated “experts”? Is their assessment of the shooting as “non-ideological” a reflection of their own ideologies? How is it decided who the experts are, and who confers the title? Is designating someone an “expert” itself an ideological act?

I am no exception to the limits imposed by my own worldview and experience.

Last month, I spoke on a panel hosted by Spokane Faith and Values, about racism and recent mass shootings, including the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres. In my talk I said that, unlike the Buffalo shooter, who was clearly motivated by fascist and white supremacist ideology, the Uvalde shooter did not seem to be motivated by such belief systems.

In the discussion period, a young activist of color named Justice Forral challenged my statement that the shooter hadn’t been motivated by white supremacist ideology. In response, I shared some reflections on the racist and anti-immigrant politics and policing of the town of Uvalde. Another panelist, Angela Schwendiman, Director of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, added that white supremacist ideology can influence people of color–even though the Uvalde shooter and his victims were nearly all Latinx, the shooter could still be influenced by white supremacist thinking.

However, I was puzzled after the event — the activist had challenged me specifically for claiming that the shooter wasn’t motivated by white supremacist ideology; they hadn’t simply asked me to discuss other aspects of racism related to the shooting. I reached out to them to understand why.

Forral, an organizer with Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), wrote in part:

Just like every other issue in America, BIPOC people are always impacted the most, if it is a lack of reproductive rights or mass shootings. And the communities most impacted are BIPOC and marginalized communities, including LGBTQ, regardless of who pulls the trigger, in terms of gun violence and mass shootings. So to me when we say it wasn’t race related or based off the victims’ identities when there is so much blood being spilled, it feels like color blindness due to people not wanting to be political in cases of violence, unless we can put the blame on the BIPOC community in the guise of gang violence and other things that perpetuate the alt-right rhetoric.

I am struck by Forral’s statement that the communities most impacted — especially Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color — are the same “regardless of who pulls the trigger.” Not naming this ignores racism and falls for the illusion of a “colorblind” analysis. This is exactly the sort of analysis that allows us to see the shootings as “not political.”

It silences those most impacted.

This is a reminder to me as well, as a white researcher and activist.

Which facts are taken as immediately relevant is influenced by our standpoint, including whether we are putting ourselves into a position of solidarity with those harmed. My immediate visceral sense of the political nature of the Highland Park shooting, which was less immediate in the case of Uvalde, is also related to my half-Jewish background. Proximity to the target brings different issues into the foreground of one’s thinking.

I do not have easy answers when it comes to how to talk about the motives of mass shooters. There are many dimensions to consider, including politics, culture, individual agency, and psychological needs. Balancing all these dimensions can be complicated. Perhaps all or nearly all mass shooters are “ideological,” though we can still ask how much time they spent examining and amplifying their beliefs.

For now, I really want to say this to those of us who get called upon to offer “expert” responses:

When people say we are ignoring their experience, they are not asking us to withhold information or to be dishonest. Instead, we are being called upon to be victim-centered as well as anti-racist in our analysis. We are being called upon to do this work not to defend the status quo from what is abnormal, illegal, or “fringe,” but with emancipatory intent, aimed at the destruction of all oppressive violence, both mainstream and “extreme.”

When our analysis forces Elad Nehorai or Justice Forral to say, “This is about us, and you’re leaving that out,” we have gotten something wrong. And when we do hear that, our response should not be, “No, you’re wrong—in this case, it wasn’t ideological.” We should learn from and with impacted communities, aiding in a mutual process of sense-making.

We were told to go to the experts because the Highland Park shooting was complicated. But the shooting was complicated precisely because of the difficulty of understanding and explaining its relationship to “ideology” and specifically to racism, antisemitism, and fascism. That is why relying on “the experts” was not sufficient.

Speaking to those most impacted is not only morally right—it is how to obtain a more accurate analysis.

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