Police arrive after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019. (Jorge Salgado/Reuters)
Speaking with a retired intelligence analyst a few years ago, I was surprised to hear him insist that we had, in a sense, been lucky with the horrifying attack of September 11, 2001. There are today many factions and tendencies that operate under the name “al-Qaeda,” but, as the analyst explained at the time, the group associated with Osama bin Laden was determined never to follow a spectacular terrorist atrocity with anything except a more spectacular sequel. That insistence, combined with our efforts to degrade the jihadists’ logistical and financial infrastructure after 9/11, probably prevented a series of subsequent attacks. Al-Qaeda could not manage something bigger and more homicidal than 9/11 at the time.
But it could easily have managed what many of us feared at the time: a series of low-level, paralyzing attacks on shopping malls, movie theaters, and other public places, unsophisticated and low-investment atrocities requiring very little more than a gun or some dynamite and — most important — a man of no consequence willing to carry it out. We didn’t get that from al-Qaeda.
We got it from a lot of dysfunctional young white guys from suburbia.
It is proper that the El Paso massacre is being treated as an act of terrorism. It was an act of political violence with a political point, crackpot manifesto and all. We may very well learn at some point that the young murderer suffered from this or that mental-health problem, that he had more “red flags” than a May Day parade, or that he had voiced his intentions. But that often is true of people who carry out what we generally understand to be acts of ordinary political terrorism of the jihadist variety or other genres. Happy, well-adjusted people do not generally massacre innocents and willingly go to their own deaths to do so. For some people, labeling crimes such as the one in El Paso “terrorism” is a kind of moral victory, because they believe that the label is more readily applied to the acts of people who are Muslim or who are not white.
But it is not clear that the “terrorism” designation, appropriate though it is, will do us very much good in working to prevent these crimes. As far as we can tell, there isn’t really much of a White Boy al-Qaeda out there. What we have instead is a tribe of Richard Reids — you remember, the feckless would-be “shoe bomber” at whom we feel comfortable laughing because he failed to make his boots go boom. We probably would consider him less a figure of fun if he had managed to kill 197 people.
Terrorist organizations, like mafias, are powerful because of their complexity and vulnerable because of their complexity. A single maladjusted man sitting in his parents’ basement does not on a whim pull off a 9/11 or begin successfully to build a caliphate. Attacks on the scale of 9/11, or organized-crime projects such as running a multi-billion-dollar drug cartel, require an org chart. They require a lot of admin. They require financial services, communication, logistics support, frequent international travel, IT, an internal corporate hierarchy, even marketing and human-resources efforts. Each of those capacities brings with it new people and new vulnerabilities, and attached to the project additional opportunities to be discovered, frustrated, or foiled. The U.S. government is, once it sets its mind to it, pretty good at disrupting those kinds of operations. We can throw a billion dollars at every million dollars’ worth of troublemaking that the plotters in Gandarshe or Sinaloa can muster.
But we can’t bomb image boards.
The weekend’s twin massacres were a matched set: One right-wing anti-immigrant lunatic, one socialist lunatic. The usual cynical and self-serving opportunists of the political world are desperately trying to use these episodes to tar the opposing camp, as though to insist that the rule of law apply to immigration were somehow related to endorsing massacres at Walmart or that being an Elizabeth Warren supporter leads inevitably to shooting into the night-owl crowd in Dayton. Many people hold repugnant political beliefs; someone holding repugnant political beliefs almost certainly will be elected president of the United States in 2020, barring some unforeseen entrant into the race. Because we suffer from the common bias (an arrogant bias at that) holding that right now is the time that matters most, we tend to forget that not only most people but most of our heroes harbored or voiced repugnant opinions, from G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot to Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Roosevelt. How many of us would be entirely comfortable if we inquired too deeply into the social and political views of our grandparents? On the other hand, many monstrous acts commonly have been carried out by those without any particular ideological orientation. Even if it were the state’s business to involve itself in the extirpation of ideas, that in itself would not spare us from the incel intifada.
It would be comforting, in a sense, if there were some Grand Council of Masturbatory Dorks behind all this. But there isn’t. How to take that into account. You could be a grotesque cretin such as Joaquin Castro, the jackass Democratic representative from San Antonio (his idiot brother, Julián, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination) and try to magic one into existence, organizing a two-minute hate campaign against such infamous malefactors as Bill Miller Bar-B-Q and the odd retiree in retaliation for their contributing to these acts of terrorism by . . . supporting the other party’s presidential candidate in the last election. It takes an ass of exceptional asininity to go down that road, but there is no shortage of them: We’ve two Castro brothers in Texas. If you wanted to ensure that we do not tamp down the hysteria and extremism in our politics, if you wanted to create an environment in which Americans understand one another as enemies, then creating a political situation in which your local congressman will try to ruin you and your family financially for ordinary political participation would be an excellent way to do that. That will do nothing to help to prevent these crimes, and may in fact contribute to the very culture that cultivates and celebrates these acts of theatrical outrage. You really think the other side is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler? We killed 4.3 million Germans getting at Hitler.
There are two poles. At one end, there are centralized, highly organized criminal enterprises such as al-Qaeda or the various mafias. At the other end there are disorganized criminals. Aryan Nations was, at the height of its power, a highly organized terrorist outfit; its remnant, the Aryan Brotherhood, is a highly organized prison gang. There have been smaller-scale but similar organizations such as the Order (or Brüder Schweigen, as it was sometimes known), which was a less sophisticated but still organized outfit that engaged in political murders, notably that of talk-show host Alan Berg. Anders Behring Breivik was not part of an organization when he carried out his massacre, but he was highly organized and carried out a carefully thought-out plan of attack, the development of which presented several opportunities for interdiction. The El Paso killer was something short of that but acting on discernable political motives; the shooters at Stoneman Douglas, Aztec High School, and Sandy Hook had still less coherent political agendas. In many of these cases, the killers’ identification with Columbine-style mass shootings as such was much stronger than any political affiliation or ideological commitment. It may still make sense to identify some of these acts as terrorism, or to think of them jointly as a single loosely related terrorist phenomenon, but that does not provide very much material for us when it comes to investigation and prevention.
In a sense, we were lucky with the terrorists from faraway places. We weren’t with the ones from the suburbs of Dallas, and the traditional tools of intelligence and organized-crime investigation probably are not going to prove effective in dealing with these. None of the major gun-control measures under discussion would do much to prevent these acts, either, and many of them would do nothing at all. (We should understand that for the gun-control lobby, these horrifying crimes are only convenient pretexts; they want to prevent the legal sale and use of firearms irrespective of any effect on mass shootings or ordinary crime; their motivation is almost purely cultural and tribal — Icky rednecks and their icky guns.) That so many self-proclaimed do-gooders turn first and instinctively to gutting the Bill of Rights and suspending due process for socially marginal types and purported subversives tells us only that political power must be kept from those who desire it most. When the Democrats propose new constraints on Americans’ constitutional rights — and not only the right to keep and bear arms — and when it is clear that those constraints would do nothing at all to prevent massacres like the one in El Paso, it is fair to ask what their real motives are and why they apparently are unable to be honest about them with the public.
Meanwhile, what to do? Call it terrorism, yes. Now what? There is no Osama bin Laden to hunt down on this front, only our sons and brothers.