It’s a warm summer evening not long after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton and several hundred demonstrators have gathered on an arterial in Fairfax, Virginia, and are holding candles. Behind them is a blue building of steel and glass that is visible from the highway out of town. High up on the facade are five words in red lettering: National Rifle Association of America.
Inside, nobody seems particularly interested in the protesters. The lights are still on in some of the offices, but it’s quiet otherwise. NRA employees, the most powerful weapons lobby in the world, know the drill: Every time a gunman mows down some people in the latest mass killing, the protesters show up. Following the two massacres that took place in the first weekend of August, the NRA posted a brief note on its website, saying that its “deepest sympathies” were with the victims and their families, but the organization would continue defending the right of Americans to bear arms. Six lines for 31 deaths. Plenty.
On the street down below, a woman begins singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a song from the Civil Rights movement. Then, the Rev. David Miller steps onto a small, improvised podium. He’s a muscular man in a dark gray, collared shirt. Empty phrases are no longer enough, he says. “The time for thoughts and prayers has come to an end. The time for us to act is now!”
“Amen,” the crowd responds, “Amen! Amen!” The reverend seems to feed off the passion of those surrounding him on this evening. There are schoolchildren, university students and a Democratic lawmaker in the audience. One of the signs reads: “Our blood, your hands.” Many marchers are holding pictures of those who died in the El Paso bloodbath.
There have been so many massacres, the reverend says. But after the attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, in which 26 people died, 20 of them children, he says he actually thought that things would finally change. He thought the same after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, with 17 deaths. But even the protests by the students who survived in Parkland didn’t result in any changes to U.S. gun laws. Now, though, the reverend says, we have really reached a decisive moment. “Now, the tanker is beginning to turn.” He stops for a moment and looks at the evening sky: “At least I hope so.”
There has been no lack this week of warnings to finally come to reason in the face of ongoing hate and violence in the U.S. In 2019 alone, some 250 people have already been killed in mass shootings in America.
Spreading a Racist Ideology
The phrase “mass shooting” doesn’t adequately describe the massacre carried out by Patrick Wood Crusius in El Paso, just as it is insufficient in other such bloodbaths. The suspected shooter was angry, but he didn’t choose his victims at random. He drove 10 hours from a Dallas suburb to the Mexican border, where the Latino share of the population is particularly high. The target of his attack was a Walmart, which does excellent business on cross-border traffic.
Crusius didn’t just want to kill people, he wanted to send a political message. And he had a role model: the gunman from Christchurch, who killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques earlier this year — and who invoked the right-wing extremist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya in 2011.
Crusius’ assault was intended as a terrorist attack. He wanted to frighten all those who aren’t white, and he wanted to spread his racist ideology. In the four-page manifesto posted online shortly before he opened fire, he wrote that he was “simply trying to defend my country from a supposed ethnic and cultural replacement brought on by an invasion.” The theory of cultural replacement is one that has been circulating for some time among right-wing extremists in the United States.
Following the Islamist terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush launched two wars that would cost the lives of thousands of soldiers. He also created the Department of Homeland Security, which employs 240,000 people and has a budget of at least $40 billion (35.7 billion euros) per year. It’s mission was primarily that of protecting the U.S. from foreign terrorists, but now, it has become increasingly clear that a perhaps more dangerous threat is developing. And it is coming from what seems to be an extremely unlikely source: quiet, leafy suburbs like Allen, Texas, where Crusius lived and became radicalized — until he ultimately packed an assault rifle into his car and headed for the Mexican border.
Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about appealing to his electorate’s basest instincts.
Holger Esser couldn’t believe it when he heard the news from El Paso. The software engineer from the German town of Düren has lived in the U.S. for 20 years and he lived on the same street as Crusius. They would say hello to each other when Esser took his dog Millie for her morning walk. Esser never really thought much about Crusius, a quiet, inconspicuous young man in his early 20s who went to nearby Collin College. He parked his Honda Civic in front of his grandparents’ place, where he lived most of the time.
‘Rotting From the Inside Out’
“I was shocked just like everyone was when I heard about the shooting. I knew the grandparents — nice, friendly people,” Esser says. Larry and Cynthia Brown, regular churchgoers according to Esser, live seven houses down from Esser. The two of them, he says, took in their grandson Patrick around two years ago, shortly after he graduated from high school. In his senior yearbook, it says that Crusius finds the “world of law enforcement” to be quite fascinating. Former classmates have described him as a quiet loner who was avoided by many and made fun of by some.
Esser has read Crusius’ manifesto, saying he wanted to understand what was going on inside his neighbor’s head. “When you live here, how can you seriously be worried that Mexicans are going to take your job?” Esser asks. Homes in the area cost up to a million dollars and those who live here have come pretty close to achieving the American dream. It’s a place of two-car garages with a third car parked out front and perfectly tended front yards. But Crusius apparently saw it as a world that was approaching collapse: “America is rotting from the inside out, and peaceful means to stop this seem to be nearly impossible,” he wrote in his manifesto.
Terror attacks perpetrated by whites against the country’s minorities have plagued the United States from the very beginning. In 1787, the country agreed on the first democratic constitution in the modern era, but the document was only able to find support from all 13 founding colonies because it bowed to pressure from the southern states and allowed them to continue their brutal system of slavery. It was only in 1865, with the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War, that slavery was abolished. Yet it was only just over a week ago that police on horseback in the Texan city of Galveston led a black suspect on a leash through town — almost as though the abolishment of slavery had never taken place. The image triggered widespread anger and the police department was forced to apologize.
Right-wing terror in the U.S. has a long history. Up until the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Timothy McVeigh held the dark record for the bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history. An eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy theories, McVeigh set off a bomb in 1995 at a federal administration building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The nongovernmental organization ADL has calculated that in the last 10 years, three quarters of all murders motivated by extremist ideologies have been committed by right-wing extremists.
Just how clear-and-present the danger is, was demonstrated in August 2017 when racists paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, while chanting: “Jews will not replace us!” One woman died when a Hitler-admirer sped his car into a group of counterdemonstrators. Donald Trump, though, didn’t find it necessary to assign blame, instead saying that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
Fine Nazis? Charlottesville made it clearer than ever that Trump willingly flirts with the extreme right fringe of the American political spectrum and that he is unwilling to criticize those who praise him. The result is that many white racists feel they have found an ally in Donald Trump.