On Christchurch, lone wolves, and the threat of fascism

Following the horrendous attack on two mosques in Christchurch two weeks ago, debate has turned toward the nature of the fascist threat in Western countries. Many have argued that we have ignored the threat of a growing fascist movement for too long, and that this attack highlights the consequences of this.

This blog post is designed to provide some thoughts on these issues. Some of these thoughts are more developed than others, while others are still in progress. All are up for discussion and debate and I hope to get feedback on these ideas to further important thinking in this area.

On the nature of the fascist threat

Debate on the nature of the fascist threat in Western Countries, and in particular in Australia, has been brewing for some time. The debate can be split fairly crudely. On one side many (including myself to an extent) have argued that while increasingly vocal, the threat of fascism is small, and shouldn’t be overstated. Others have disagreed, stating that we are seeing a real rise in fascism in Australia and around the Western World, similar to what we saw in Europe in the 1930s. We need to take is seriously before it becomes even more mainstream. In fact, as Jason Wilson has argued, many of the ideas of the far right are already becoming embedded in public policy.

Reflecting on what happened in Christchurch this debate is even more important. The massacre in Christchurch highlights that fascist actors are a real and significant threat. Fifty people were brutally murdered due to fascist ideas, and we cannot underplay the significance of that.

Yet, at the same time, it is worth thinking about the particular nature of this threat. While Tarrant unleashed awful terror, this does not necessarily portend to a growing movement, nor does it necessarily hark back to the violence that was part of the rise of fascist Governments in the 1930s.

A lone wolf terrorist? 

To delve into this issue I want to examine the contention that Tarrant was a ‘lone wolf’.

Many have reacted against labelling Tarrant as a lone wolf, in particular pointing out hypocrisy that this label has been provided to him when it is often not provided to Islamist terrorists. Moreover, some argue that no person can be a lone wolf, as we are all influenced by those around us, and by the social conditions in which we live.

These are fair positions, yet at the same time I think the label of lone wolf is still a useful one. To be useful we need to clarify what it means.

Ramon Spaaij (I can send this article to anyone who wants it) defines lone wolves as “terrorists who carry out attacks individually and independently from established terrorist organizations.” (pg 845). Spaaij expands upon this by arguing that:

“lone wolf terrorism involves terrorist attacks carried out by persons who (a) operate individually, (b) do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network, and (c) whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy.” (pg. 856)

Importantly, this definition does not exclude the fact that individuals have been influenced by outside forces, political ideas or social movements. In fact, the direct opposite. Spaaij argues:

“Lone wolf terrorists may identify of sympathize with extremist movements but, by definition, do not form part of these movements. The spectrum of motivations and validations that has been described for terrorist organizations equally seems to apply to lone wolf terrorists.” (pg. 856)

Lone wolf terrorists are influenced by outside forces and social movements, and in fact could have previously been a member of a terrorist organisation. When it comes to planning and orchestrating an attack however, lone wolves act on their own. Planning, development and implementation are all developed by the individual, with no joint coordination or direction from higher ups.

Using this definition we can argue that, at least based on current evidence, Tarrant was a lone wolf. Yes, he certainly was influenced by others, in particular far right figures, around him. Tarrant claims he got his blessing for the attack from Anders Breivik (the only person he seems to have told individually on current evidence), and he cites influence from figures ranging from Candace Owens to Dylan Roof. As recent stories have shown, he heaped praise online on Australian neo-nazi Blair Cottrell. He also donated to some far-right organisations. He clearly was not living in a social void and was influenced by far right figures around him.

At the same time it seems as though Tarrant planned and conducted this attack on his own. He had, as far as we know, no co-conspirators, no people who sat down and planned it out with him, no one who waited outside with a car to drive him away. No one was directing his actions. There was certainly no large group that was coordinating this attack. As already noted that only person apparently involved was Anders Breivik, who, according to Tarrant gave his blessing. However, we do not seem to have any actual evidence that that happened, and if it did, Breivik was not actually involved in any other organisation. The only other people he told were online with an anonymous post on 8chan just moments before the event. We have no evidence that there was any prior discussion of the attack with that community.

While this distinction may seem trivial, it is actually really important. This distinction highlights the particular type of fascist threat we’re facing at the moment. And it does not absolve Tarrant’s fascist influence of responsibility for their words and actions.

The threat of “leaderless resistance”

To delve into this we need to quickly cross over to the United States and to the state of far-right and fascists movements there. In an article for the Guardian in early March Vegas Tenold argued that the threat of fascism in the US has changed over the past couple of years. After a burst of activity following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, organised far-right and fascist groups are now splintering and losing members. This trend started in particular after Charlottesville in 2017, and has been quickened by effective anti-fascist campaigning.

Fascists in the United States have become somewhat demoralised, losing faith in mass organising, and further disconnected from the political system. In turn some have begun to seek avenues elsewhere. In particular Tanold points to Christopher Hasson, who was recently arrested on firearms and drug charges in California. After his arrest police officers discovered that he was a neo-nazi and was planning a mass attack (although it’s not known whether he was actually planning on undertaking it or just fantasising). Hasson had a huge cache of weapons as well as a hit list of prominent Democrats and media figures. Similar to Tarrant, Hasson seemed to be working on his own, and was not a member of any far right organisation.

Note that I do not say that this threat is ‘new’. Isolated and/or frustrated far-right figures engaging in violent acts is not a new phenomenon in the United States, nor anywhere. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a Government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 is a classic example of this (although McVeigh had an accomplice in his actions, Terry Nichols, meaning he wasn’t a lone wolf). In his book Alt America David Neiwert for example details the history of far-right figures stockpiling weapons, undertaking sieges of Government facilities, and engaging in mass violent attacks.

Tenold argues that this forms what they define as “leaderless resistance”. They argue:

“Coupled with increased frustration by the limitations of political engagement comes the rise of more terroristic groups such as Atomwaffen Division, a militant neo-Nazi group linked to several murders. They and others have brought a less hierarchical and more disorderly structure to white supremacist activism, which makes them both harder to track and to control. Known as “leaderless resistance”, it has been a tactic of white supremacists for decades and lead to events such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but has been made exponentially easier by the internet.”

This distinction is important.

To put it simply, the threat posed by people such as Tarrant is not that of a growing neo-nazi movement in mass protests. Instead it is actually in many ways the opposite. The threat is of those who are frustrated at the lack of such a movement, or the backlash against their ideas, and decide to take things into their own hands. These actors can act in small groups or pairs like McVeigh, or, can be lone wolves such as Tarrant or Hasson.

Examine the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant and we can see these themes very clearly (note I’m repeating some elements of his manifesto here, but only to aide in this analysis of the particular threat he represents).

While Tarrant argues that he represents “Millions of European and other ethno-nationalist peoples that wish to live in peace amongst their own people” he at the same time expresses frustration at the lack of fascist organisation. One part of Tarrant’s manifesto is structured in a question and answer format. At one moment he asks; “Won’t your attack do more harm than good?” to which he responds “No, there isn’t a successful, influential grand movement established just yet, and no leading organizations, so there is no great structure created that could be brought to harm.”

If fact Tarrant seems to see the role of his attack as providing inspiration for others of the same belief to act in the same way he has (as evidence suggests this is unfortunately likely to have been somewhat successful, although most likely within the short term). It highlights a frustration he had that no one is taking things seriously enough, and that there is not enough of a fascist movement. At one point for example, when describing his trajectory toward the development of his views, Tarrant explains his frustration at a lack of action, writing in all caps three times on the same page “WHY WON’T SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING?”, to which he then follows “WHY DON’T I DO SOMETHING?”

Recognising the particular nature of the fascist threat

What do we take from this? This discussion on this threat is still developing, but I think there are a few important points we can pull out.

In their article Tenold argues that the growth of “leaderless resistance” potentially presents an even bigger threat than that the US was facing in the lead up to Charlottesville. At one point they quote University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew, who reflecting on the Hasson case said that “my guess is that there are thousands like him.”

This quote is telling as it highlights our lack of knowledge about the numbers of people who are engaging in these forms of activities, or planning these sorts of attacks. Quite simply, identifying actors such as Tarrant and Hasson is extremely difficult, primarily because they’re not working with anyone else. Therefore,  while it is clear that the potential of these attacks present a real and serious threat, we should be cautious about our understanding of the scale of this particular threat. At this point we just don’t know what this represents in the longer term, and so we have to be careful about how we talk about it, and in particular that we do not link these individual actors to a broader mass movement (they are more likely influenced by a broader very small movement).

In saying this, there are positive and negative lessons we can learn.

If fascists are frustrated at the lack of a mass fascist movement this can only be a good thing. Fascist groups have been decimated in the United States in the past couple of years, and in Australia, despite very real concerns about media coverage they have not shown much strength. There has been, for example, significant backlash to the remarks of Fraser Anning, a Senator who, elevated in many ways by mistake, has virtually zero chance of getting re-elected at the next poll. When fascists in Australia have organised, as in the rally in St Kilda earlier this year, their numbers were very small, dwarfed by anti-protestors (this has often been true in the United States as well). Even the more popular of Australian far-right parties, One Nation, are consistently polling less than their high water mark in the 1990s when they first emerged. They are certainly not polling close to the high-water marks seen in some European countries in recent years.

But there are of course many serious negatives as well, ones that do mean we should stop and rethink how we approach this threat. Tarrant was part of a dangerous current. He murdered 50 people in cold blood due to his fascist ideas. He follows a long line of socially marginalised actors who can cause real harm – from Timothy McVeigh to Anders Breivik to Dylan Roof. We cannot hide from the realities of right-wing mass attacks like this. These sorts of attacks influence others, which is backed up by evidence that suggests that even the reporting of mass shootings can lead to copycat attacks later down the track. Since Christchurch there has been reports of increased anti-Muslim attacks. Numbers in the United Kingdom suggest a 593% percentage increased reports of anti-Muslim attacks in the week following the massacre. This suggests a very real current of anti-Muslim sentiment in Western society, one that is having real impacts.

“Leaderless resistance” brings with it particular challenges. This trend challenges the notion that this attack was due to the mainstreaming of fascist ideas, an argument which has been present in debates over the past couple of weeks. In fact, as already stated, the potential is that this attack came to very lack of mainstreaming of these ideas. This is a good thing, and one that is the due in no small part to effective anti-racist movements that have particularly mobilized in recent years.

People like Hasson and Tarrant did not have a mass organisation in which they could participate, and so they got frustrated, and took action on their own. This does not mean they do not pose a threat. Obviously they do. But they pose a threat that in many ways is different to the one that has been debated in the past couple of weeks. To stop these massacres in the future, we need to pay attention to these details.

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