How Do You Solve A Problem Like White Terrorists? Name Them.
After Australian Brenton Tarrant allegedly killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern won many hearts by vowing his name would not pass her lips.
"He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” Ardern said.
(Tarrant has pleaded not guilty, with a trial set for next May.)
She echoes the #NoNotoriety stance championed by some victims of US mass shootings who ask media and the public to refrain from publishing the names, images, and any writings of mass killers. Denying them notoriety, they reason, will discourage potential copycats.
READ MORE: What We Know About The Christchurch Shooter
I understand why those personally impacted would prefer not to hear the names of their shooters. Whether or not the media and public discourse should follow suit is another story.
Tarrant was, according to his own “manifesto”, allegedly motivated by white supremacy. This is easily evidenced by his choice of target and professed belief in the Great Replacement Hypothesis: the fear that immigration is really white genocide: an attempt to supplant the white population with foreigners who will then breed with white women, leaving white men, well, replaced.
Similarly motivated was the weekend’s El Paso massacre, in which 21-year-old Patrick Crusius allegedly drove 10 hours to open fire on a discount Walmart store close to the Mexican border because he “wanted to kill Hispanics'.
That same day, conservative activists implored us to think of the victims rather than the shooter.
Noble words, but two years earlier the same activists had no qualms about publicising the suspect in a shooting at a Ft Lauderdale airport, objecting to the media pushing a “mental illness narrative” at the expense of Esteban Santiago-Ruiz’s alleged links to ISIS (no link was found). Then there were pictures posted of the alleged attacker “doing an ISIL [ISIS] salute”. So much for #NoNotoriety.
It’s a familiar script: 'Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims'. The association between Middle Eastern Muslim men and terrorism is so strong, they magically materialise at attacks they had nothing to do with. From the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, committed by white domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, to the 2018 Toronto Van Attack where 25-year-old incel (involuntary celibate) Alek Minassian allegedly rammed into pedestrians killing 10, initial media reports had men of Middle Eastern appearance fleeing the scene.
In the confusion following the Toronto attack, journalist Natasha Fatah tweeted one witness’ description of the driver as “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern”. This was quickly retweeted more than 1,500 times. In another of her tweets, a different witness described the driver as “white”. This one got just 124 retweets.
The discrepancy is clear: we expect terrorists to be brown Muslims. As such, their names, religion, ethnicity, and appearance are all regarded as determinants driving their actions. When the perpetrator is white the script calls for something far different. The script says it’s a mental health issue, or a video game issue, or a gun control issue -- but while access to firearms makes such attacks physically possible, it does not provide the ideological motivation.
The calls to name white nationalist and white supremacist violence for what it is are getting louder. However, there remains a reluctance to contextualise this violence and the ideology that propels it beyond such things as attributing it almost solely to President Trump.
READ MORE: One Day. Two Mass Shootings. 30 Dead.
According to their manifestos, both Tarrant and Crusius were driven by the fear of being invaded and replaced by brown and black immigrants. These fears mirror those propagated by Trump, who referred to the so-called caravan of Latin American asylum seekers attempting to enter the US as an invasion: “Women don’t want them in our country. Women want security.”
But Trump is no aberration. The fear he exploits to rile up his supporters goes back to the very foundations of settler-colonial society. Trump conflated the security of women with border protection for a reason, and this reason lies at the heart of both white supremacy and the sexual entitlement of so-called incels: the body of the pure white nation has long been represented by the body of the pure white woman.
READ MORE: Trump Calls For Gun Background Check Law
In this ideology both the nation and its women are reserved for white men and any foreign violation of one will inevitably lead to the corruption of the other.
This fear of miscegenation and replacement was the driving force behind segregation and the obsession with the sexuality of black men.
Representations -- the words and images that appear across all forms of media -- dominate and shape our understanding of the world. It is the repetitive representation of deviant black male sexuality that produced the myth that all black men have big penises. It is the repetitive representation of Middle Eastern Muslim men as terrorists that permits a Fox News anchor to postulate an ISIS link to El Paso given the “very porous border.”
How easy representation makes it to blame mass shootings -- as American as apple pie -- on brown foreigners.
To erase the names and ideology of white nationalist killers risks erasing this context. Refusing to utter their names or show their faces, and treating their manifestos as no-go zones may appear to thwart any desire for infamy, but it also means that white society retains its image of white innocence and the corresponding image of terrorism as an external problem of Middle Eastern Muslims.
“Angelic boy who grew into an evil mass killer,” said one newspaper of Brenton Tarrant. Brown terrorists are regarded as products of their culture, white terrorists as deviants from theirs; what better punishment than to deny them their white names?
This may help some people come to terms with an immediate tragedy, but it not only doesn’t help prevent further ones, it may actually make them more likely.
How do we solve a problem like a white terrorist? Well, as the saying goes, to solve a problem you first have to name it.