The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
Author’s Note: Given the likely “copycat” links between the October 2018 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, and April 2019 Poway, California terrorist attacks, in writing this publication I consulted with Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY-Oswego, a research scholar on mass shootings, and research analyst with the No Notoriety campaign. No Notoriety is a research-driven national advocacy campaign that seeks to reduce the incidence of mass violence fueled by media coverage. Consistent with No Notoriety’s research-based guidelines on reporting mass shootings, I have tried, to the maximum extent possible, to avoid mentioning the alleged terrorists’ names and paraphrase or summarize content from their manifestos. The intent is to balance the importance of providing an expert analysis of extremist concepts associated with these attacks, with the need to prevent giving the attackers and their ideas any unnecessary exposure that may inspire other “copycat” attacks.
On March 15, 2019, an Australian national entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting and killing at least 50 people and wounding another 50. The casualties include a dead 3-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, who, until recently, was in critical condition. More recently on April 27, a 19-year-old man is alleged to have entered a synagogue in Poway, California, shooting and killing one and wounding three others, including a 9-year-old girl. Current information on the California attack and its alleged perpetrator strongly suggests it was a “copycat” incident largely inspired by the Christchurch attack.
Shortly before each attack, the suspects had allegedly written and posted publications that expressed their justifications for the shootings. My reading of the open letter attributed to the Poway terrorist (“open letter”) indicates it was stylistically and substantively written in a manner largely similar to the New Zealand suspect’s document, and had referenced him directly by name at least 10 times.
Since more information is currently known about the Christchurch attack compared to the Poway attack, in this Discussion Point, I focus on providing a broader survey and analysis of key narratives, beliefs, and tropes found in the alleged New Zealand terrorist’s manifesto (“the manifesto”). In particular, I will focus on important concepts and themes in the manifesto text that have been largely under- or un-reported by media outlets. Where relevant, I compare them to themes identified in the text of the open letter attributed to the alleged terrorist in Poway. The intent is to provide readers with a fuller description of the beliefs used by the attackers to justify their recent terrorist violence.
The Manifesto’s Overarching Narrative
The manifesto--which has been described as racist “rambling” and deliberate internet “shitposting”--contains a coherent, if deeply disturbing, overarching narrative based on several key concepts and beliefs expressed by far-right white supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and “Patriot” anti-government movements.
The narrative can be summarized as follows: “white nations,” according to the manifesto, are experiencing an alarming cultural and racial demographic decline, the latter being fueled by low white birthrates and mass immigration/migration. The declining white population in these countries, coupled with rising numbers of immigrants--especially those from Muslim-majority states--is leading to a gradual non-white “takeover” of these countries. The ultimate outcome of this process is the permanent demographic and cultural demise of its European-heritage majority, which is described as a “white genocide” and “great replacement.” (The manifesto’s title, “The Great Replacement,” is a verbatim reference to a Muslim-centric variant of the white genocide concept that xenophobic figures allege is taking place in France and the rest of Europe.)
The main characters in this story are the attacker, the West’s passive racially-unconscious white majority, Muslims, and actors he directly labels or portrays as “traitors” -- such as elected officials, unnamed non-government organizations, business leaders, and “Antifa/Marxists/Communists.”
For the most part, the Poway attacker’s open letter shared this narrative, centering its justification for violence on the idea of “white genocide.” However, as I will point out shortly, there are also some notable differences on specific details between the two texts.
Key White Supremacist Concepts
While much of the media coverage and analysis has focused on the manifesto’s lengthy discussion of “white genocide,” it is one of several other important white supremacist concepts and narratives embedded within the text.
Race War and Race Traitors
One of these concepts is “race war” (sometimes also called a Racial Holy War or “RaHoWa” for short) which generally speaks of a mass conflict between whites and non-whites, but contains variants that differ on specific details. Sometimes versions of this concept describe it as a future violent apocalyptic event; other version describe it as ongoing.
Although the term “racial warfare” is only explicitly mentioned once in the manifesto, the idea of race war is implicit throughout the text.
The manifesto’s own version of race war suggests that this is an ongoing slow-moving struggle. The main “weapons” in this conflict are population birthrates, immigration laws and policies, and values of social tolerance, multi-culturalism, and cultural degeneracy and nihilism that are being spread via educational institutions and mass media. These latter values amount to a kind of mass psychological warfare that weaken whites’ resolve to raise awareness of and resist the ongoing racial genocide. The “foot soldiers,” so to speak, are Muslims, who are aided by the various “traitors” mentioned earlier.
The role of “race traitors,” also features prominently within the text. Like race war, the specific term “race traitor” is used explicitly only once, although the terms “traitor,” “traitors” and “traitorous” are collectively used 21 times throughout the document. According to the manifesto, non-whites’ purported “successes” in the race war against whites would not have been possible without assistance from these racial turncoats. These actors are responsible for advocating and implementing policies bringing thousands of immigrants and refugees into Western nations. They are also deemed responsible for propagating values that weaken Western societies and white men in particular, and are seen as further losses in the ongoing race war that, if lost by whites, will end in a complete racial and cultural white genocide.
Themes of “race war” and “race traitors” also feature very prominently in the Poway open letter, but with some notable differences. The open letter also asserts there is an ongoing race war and that whites are facing potential “genocide.” However, in addition to Muslims and immigrants broadly, its list of enemies explicitly includes Latinx and African-American people, likely reflecting the alleged author’s American socio-political context.
The words “traitor” and “traitorous” are used collectively three times in the open letter. Two of these times are in reference to politicians, including once explicitly toward President Donald Trump, whom the author also labels as “anti-white.” The third time is used to discuss white men who do not join the purported race war to defend against genocide.
It also comes up when the text mentions “The Day of the Rope,” an event in the racist dystopian fictional novel Turner Diaries--which has inspired more than 200 ideologically-motivated homicide deaths since its publication in 1978--that describes white supremacist terrorists who, as part of an ongoing apocalyptic race war, engage in a mass killing spree of whites in Los Angeles they deemed “race traitors.” The “Day of the Rope” has since commonly been used by white supremacists to express their desire to kill “race traitors.”
In terms of storyline characters, the Poway open letter explicitly and repeatedly mentions one other group of people that is almost entirely absent from the New Zealand manifesto: Jews. This is not to suggest that Jews were completely unmentioned in the manifesto; they were spoken of explicitly twice. The manifesto’s author writes that Jews are “no enemy of mine” provided they live in Israel (not European countries) and “do not seek to subvert or harm” whites. While clearly articulating a dim view of Jews, the manifesto is much more preoccupied with and hostile toward Muslims. If Jews appear elsewhere in the manifesto, then it may be in the single reference to “cultural marxists,” [sic] that, at best, is a thinly-disguised anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
By contrast, Jews are the central object of open and intense hostility in the open letter. The words “Jew,” “Jewry,” “Jewish,” and similar words are collectively used 46 times throughout the text. (The words “Muslim,” “Islam,” and similar words are collectively used 22 times in the manifesto, which has a word length approximately four times greater than the open letter.) The open letter explicitly blames Jews for the kinds of things that the manifesto blames “race traitors” for, such as immigration policies allowing non-whites to enter white countries, multi-culturalism, and cultural degeneracy, et cetera.
Typical of most white supremacist literature, Jews are portrayed in the open letter as innately hostile to whites, constantly scheming to undermine them and others. They are identified in the text as the real masterminds in the race war, using African-Americans and Latinx individuals as “useful puppets” for “replacing whites.” In a nod to the racist pseudo-scientific views that underwrite many white supremacist beliefs, the open letter further observes African-Americans and Latinx individuals “simply aren’t intelligent enough” to know that they are being manipulated by Jews.
The Overton Window, explicitly mentioned only once in the manifesto, is not a white supremacist concept per se, but is an idea that many far-right extremists given significant attention to.
Named after its author, Joseph Overton, the Overton Window is a heuristic used to explain a limited range (“window”) of policies and ideas that are politically and socially acceptable to openly discuss at any given time. Policies and ideas that are generally regarded as politically and socially unacceptable would be considered “outside” the parameters of the window. As one essay on the concept further points out, if “a particular idea... lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window.”
Using various tactics and strategies, that is exactly what white supremacists and other far-right extremists have been laboring to do for years.
Some far-right actors, such as those who do not openly identify as white supremacist and are engaged in electoral politics, often eschew the explicit racism and bigotry for political purposes, instead opting to express their racial and xenophobic hostilities in coded “dog-whistle” terms.
Other far-right extremists, however, do not necessarily share such qualms or political calculations. White supremacists within the broader so-called “alt-right” milieu continue to express overt racism and bigotry, but often use irony and humor to mask the serious and hateful nature of their beliefs.
It’s in this wider context that the manifesto’s internet meme “shitposting” -- a slang term for deliberate misbehaviors and rhetoric used to make an online conversation go off-topic -- must be understood. Observers note that the attacker’s repeated use of memes were 1) a deliberate tactic used to further spread coverage of the attack and 2) distract members of the public from properly identifying and combating the extremist ideology behind the attack.
A third function of shitposting memes in the manifesto is to make its racism and bigotry seem lighthearted and less serious than it really is, thus making it easier to be accepted by audiences. In other words, it’s another way of shifting the Overton Window by eroding the social taboos and stigmas of racism by repackaging them as something ironic and funny.
Aja Romano, a digital reporter who covers internet culture and the extremist online “alt-right” milieu points out:
The whole point of these types of memes is that they are not meant to be taken seriously, right up until the moment where they become very serious. Take it from the anonymous owner of an established anti-Semitic YouTube channel, who described his own strategy of spreading his hateful rhetoric as follows: “Pretend to joke about it until the punchline /really/ lands.”
The manifesto also claims to use this strategy, stating, “Whilst we may use edgy humour and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience, eventually we will need to show the reality of our thoughts and our more serious intents and wishes for the future.” Similarly, the open letter asked its readers to “make memes, shitpost” as a way to spread its extremist message.
Romano points to illuminating cases like YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, as evidence suggesting these communication strategies have some observable effects. Kjellberg, who has millions of followers—including the second-most popular channel on YouTube, the majority of whose followers (55%) are youth, ages 13 to 24--has repeatedly courted controversy by flirting with and amplifying anti-Semitic and “alt-right” content. Observers point out that whether or not Kjellberg himself is racist, he nevertheless, in effect, has used his social media platform to spread and normalize bigotry.
It is perhaps no surprise then that, moments before he initiated his attack while livestreaming on Facebook, the New Zealand terrorist invoked a popular internet meme connected to Kjellberg, stating, “Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.” Kjellberg’s real name and his PewDiePie moniker were also mentioned in the open letter.
Kjellberg himself has condemned the abuse of the meme, most recently uploading a video on April 28, 2019, one day after the Poway attack, entitled, “Ending the Subscribe to Pewdiepie Meme.” In the video he discusses and condemns the Christchurch attack, however he did not directly mention the Poway terrorist incident.
Anti-Muslim Narratives and Tropes
The New Zealand terrorist specifically targeted and killed Muslims, using various narratives and tropes to demonize, de-humanize, and justify violence against them. One of these tropes, extensively covered by media outlets, was the manifesto’s description of Muslims as “invaders.” Like “white genocide,” the term “invaders” has been associated with far-right ideologically-motivated violence, such as the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Islam as Inherently Violent
Within the context of the New Zealand attacks, the manifesto’s description of Muslims as “invaders” is connected to a larger narrative that portrays Islam and Muslims as an inherently violent and aggressive monolithic force. Using pseudo-historical framing, the manifesto directly invokes this narrative, claiming the attack was, “a want for revenge against islam [sic.] 1300 years of war and devastation that it has brought upon the people of the West and other peoples of the world.”
Various pseudo-historical aspects of this are found elsewhere in the manifesto, including extensive quotes from Pope Urban II’s 1095 speech ordering the first Crusade, repeatedly calling for the European conquest of Constantinople (known today as Istanbul) and citing the 1683 Siege of Vienna. Like many historical narratives invoked for contemporary political purposes, including the Christian-Muslim “Clash of Civilizations”-kind expressed in the manifesto, they tend to gloss over important facts that severely complicate and undermine their storyline.
Depicting Muslim Men as Rapists
This narrative also contains its contemporary social elements. For example, it dedicates an entire two-page section to depicting Muslim men as serial sexual predators and rapists, listing several high-profile examples of sexual assault in Europe. Most of the listed cases are gang rapes in Great Britain by sex trafficking rings, composed mostly of men from Muslim backgrounds. Recent reporting about the New Zealand attacker suggests that the manifesto’s particular focus on specific sexual exploitation incidents in Britain may be mimicking the messaging strategies of European white supremacist groups that the attacker previously donated money to.
However, using rape tropes about Muslim males also serves another purpose: it acts as an important inspiration and justification for violence. One can turn to other examples of far-right racist terrorism, such as the 2015 massacre of African-American church congregants in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylan Roof. Roof, who was listed as a source of inspiration in the manifesto, reportedly said during his attack, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Those words were echoed in the manifesto, which called for killing the rapists and their families.
Constructing Violent Masculinities
There are at least two subtexts that follow from casting Muslim men as violent rapists. One of them is a larger construction of violent Muslim masculinity that is seen as a direct physical threat to white communities, particularly white women. Female sexuality and women’s bodies in general across race, place, and culture have long been used both symbolically and physically in nationalist discourses to construct and maintain communal boundaries. They have also been used to shame men into joining violent causes.
This includes white nationalists, who have a long history of justifying various forms of state and non-state violence in the name of protecting white women. Like the Charleston attacker, the New Zealand terrorist contributes to this sexist, racist and violent discursive tradition, ending the section on Muslim rapists by stating, “For the disgrace you have heaped upon the European people and the distress you have caused European women, you will die.”
A corollary to constructing Muslim men as sexual predators is casting white men as weak. Immediately preceding the section on Muslim rapists, the author of the manifesto writes a one-paragraph section on “who are to blame” for the perceived white genocide. The manifesto points to “[E]uropean men,” and ultimately concludes, “Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.” This implies that the New Zealand attacker sees himself as one of these strong men and ultimately chose to affirm it through a symbolic act of mass violence against a group of people he characterized as invaders and rapists.
The open letter also portrays white men as weak, but not in the context of protecting white women or contrasting them with aggressive hyper-masculine Muslim men. Instead the author portrays weak white men as talkers rather than doers who are willing to make real world sacrifices on behalf the white race, noting “To the coward, it is just a hobby.” The author argues that a pretend race warrior is equivalent to a “traitor” who has “nothing useful to offer.”
Key Anti-Immigrant Concepts
In addition to characterizing immigrants as invaders, there are at least two other anti-immigrant features of the manifesto that are worth noting.
The first is eco-fascism, which has gained some public attention due to various political figures incorrectly claiming the attacker was “left-wing” and an “eco-terrorist.” Eco-fascism is a form of white supremacy, which promotes positions such as “veganism, anti-multiculturalism, white nationalism, anti-single use plastic, anti-Semitism, and, almost always a passionate interest in Norse mythology.” It also contains very strong xenophobic elements.
The link between nativism and environmentalism may not initially be intuitive for some, given that the former is usually associated with far-right views and the latter with left-leaning politics. However, as environmental reporter and analyst of far-right movements, Matthew Phelan points out, “Across Europe, for example, a longstanding cultural relationship between Nature and Nation permeates environmental debate with a nativist sentiment stronger than is typically visible in the United States.” Phelan goes on to cite several examples of historical and contemporary far-right individuals, groups and movements in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and the United States fusing nativism and environmentalism together.
The manifesto specifically focuses on the anti-immigrant aspects of eco-fascism, dedicating at least an entire page to espousing what it calls “Green Nationalism.” In the “Answering Possible questions” section, responding to the hypothetical question, “Why focus on immigration and birthrates when climate change is such a huge issue?” the manifesto claims “overpopulation” by non-whites is the central cause of global environmental degradation. To stave off environmental disaster, it calls on whites to “[k]ill invaders,” which will halt overpopulation.
Race-Based Economic Protectionism
The second notable anti-immigrant feature of the text is its economic protectionism, which is common to many Western far-right movements. The manifesto explicitly frames this concept in both xenophobic and racial terms, describing white workers’ financial livelihoods as under attack from the labor production of non-white foreign workers and non-white foreign countries. This injects a socio-economic element into the larger white genocide/great replacement narrative.
The manifesto specifically identifies two perceived economic threats posed by non-white states and workers to the livelihoods of white-majority societies, namely the mass importation of foreign goods and foreign labor. In response to the first perceived threat, the manifesto explicitly fuses labor concerns and eco-fascist language to call for race-based economic protectionism, stating any goods made without any regard “for the natural world [and] dignity of workers” should be banned from white-majority countries. The section ends by stating, “CHEAP LABOUR AND ALL CONSUMING INDUSTRY ARE NOT IDEALS, BLOCK FOREIGN GOODS FROM WHITE MARKETS”. (emphasis in original)
In direct response to the second perceived economic threat, it explicitly calls for keeping out non-white workers by any means possible. Proposed actions range from “increases to the minimum wage” and “unionization of workers” to increasing white birthrates so as to reduce the need for foreign-imported workers.
However, the manifesto also emphatically advocates for, and justifies the use of, terrorist violence, identifying two categories of targets.
The first are non-white (Muslim) workers who were specifically targeted by the New Zealand terrorist. The second group of targets are “economic elites” who push for immigration policies allowing for greater numbers of foreign workers. According to the manifesto, “Nothing drives the invasion more and nothing needs to be defeated more than the greed that demands cheap labour.” These individuals belong to the “race traitors” explained earlier in this article. (In fact, the one place where the manifesto explicitly uses the term “race traitors” is specifically in relation to these “economic elites.”)
Key Anti-Government Concepts
Although the New Zealand attacker was an Australian national whose violent actions were motivated by white supremacist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim beliefs, his manifesto also contained references to conspiracy theories popular within the U.S. anti-government “Patriot” movement. These references were similarly repeated in the Poway open letter.
Guns and Civil War
In particular, both texts repeatedly claim part of the motivation for the attacks was to sow and deepen further social discord in the United States over the issue of firearms ownership. More specifically, the intent, in the words of the manifesto, is to instigate “the attempted removal of firearms rights [that will hopefully] result in a civil war” that will divide Americans on “political, cultural, and, most importantly, racial lines.”
“Removal of firearms rights” and “civil war” are a clear nod to particular conspiracy theories popular among the American anti-government far-right, often called the “Patriot” movement. The former reference alludes to the belief that the federal government, in collusion with “globalists,” “leftists,” and others, are engaged in a conspiracy to confiscate Americans’ firearms in order to pave the way for federal and global government tyranny. The latter reference is the idea that even in the absence of a mass gun grab and subsequent government tyranny, leftists and other malignant forces are nevertheless mobilizing to create a totalitarian state. Therefore resistance, both violent and non-violent, is inevitable and necessary.
Shifting Patriots’ Overton Window on Race?
The contemporary American anti-government “Patriot” movement, is composed of far-right actors who are primarily animated by, among other things, hostility toward the U.S. federal government and perceived malignant international influences (e.g. “New World Order,” the United Nations, “Illuminati” and others).
That said, the historical origins and early incarnations of the movement were also heavily influenced by white supremacy, particularly so-called “Christian Identity” beliefs, which are based on racist and anti-Semitic interpretations of the Bible. The support base and ideology overlapped significantly enough that Mark Pitcavage, an expert on U.S. far-right extremism, once described the “Patriot” movement in its earliest years as “closer to half-and-half antigovernment and intolerance.” Over time, anti-government extremists eschewed the overt racism and anti-Semitism associated with earlier years. Although still predominantly white, male and Christian, it is not uncommon today to find visible numbers of ethnic and racial minorities, women, and adherents of other religious traditions as movement supporters.
Despite its evolution on various forms of prejudice, U.S. far-right anti-government extremists have been re-engaging with overt bigotry, which so far has been mostly directed at immigrants and Muslims. They have also re-incorporated some overtly racist elements into their core narratives. For example, multiple “Patriot” groups claim South Africa’s recent attempts to enforce its existing gun laws is part of a mass gun confiscation that will serve as a prelude to eventual wholesale slaughter of whites by its black majority.
Perhaps cognizant of these evolving trends among “Patriot” extremists, the New Zealand and Poway terrorists directly appealed to supporters of the American anti-government far-right in their writings. If the immediate post-attack commentary from high-profile anti-government thought leaders provides any indication of its reception among rank-and-file supporters, then the New Zealand terrorist’s racist and bigoted views were largely met with approval, even if his violent methods of advocating for them are rejected. These kinds of examples suggest the “Patriot” movement’s Overton Window on race and bigotry continues to shift in a direction back toward its earliest years.
Beyond the rhetoric of “white genocide,” the New Zealand terrorist manifesto and, more recently, the Poway open letter, employed multiple concepts, narratives, and tropes to reach multiple audiences. Although thousands of miles apart, the two texts largely drew from similar ideas and rhetoric of other far-right movements. Echoing the growing chorus of voices, it is time to recognize far-right extremism as a growing transnational threat, and invest the necessary resources into further research that can inform state and civil society efforts to address this global challenge.
 Thanks to Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut for her consultation and willingness to share a detailed version of the No Notoriety guidelines and the research supporting them. See: Schildkraut, J. (Forthcoming). A call to the media to change reporting practices for the coverage of mass shootings. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy (copy on file with author).