Terrifyingly Effective Terrorism: White Supremacists versus the Field

by Neil H. Buchanan

Although the national conversation has -- rather incredibly -- already moved on from the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings (now covering awful-but-still-less-bad issues like Jeffrey Epstein and not-at-all-important matters like Joe Biden's flubs), I am still thinking about what it means to live in a country in which white supremacists are starting to take action on their hatreds more frequently and openly.

There is no doubt that what the white supremacists are doing counts as terrorism, because they are terrifying people to the point that children are being equipped with Kevlar backpacks and people are now afraid to do normal things in their daily lives.  The point of terrorism is to make people feel that they are never safe.  That is what domestic abuse does to an isolated spouse (almost always the wife, of course), and it is what national or international networks of terrorists aim to do to people in general.

This then raises a particularly grim question: Who is "best" at creating terror?  The answer is that, although white supremacists are possibly the least organized of all terrorist groups, they seem to have stumbled upon the most effective way to terrorize people.  How does that work?

Back when everyone was focused on the type of terrorism that inflicted attacks like the 9/11 tragedy on the world (to which one can add various large-scale attacks on passenger trains in Europe), one interesting question was why Osama bin Laden and others of that ilk were focusing on high-profile targets like the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (presumably) the White House?

Even before 9/11, that was the presumption about terrorists' targets.  For instance, immediately before the U.S. initiated the first Gulf War under George H.W. Bush, the White House and Pentagon issued a list of five likely high-priority targets in the U.S. that Saddam Hussein's network of sleeper cells -- which surely existed and was ready to leap into action at a moment's notice -- would swiftly attack in retaliation for our military action.  If you happened to be near one of those targets, as I was at the time (having booked a flight to National Airport without realizing that I would be flying on the date of the attack), it was absolutely terrifying.  Indeed, I have never been as scared in my life as I was walking through the airport terminal that day.

But if one thinks that terrorists are in one sense or another evil geniuses (as we presumed bin Laden and others to be), it never made much sense to me that they would stick to obvious targets like the Empire State Building or the Capitol.  This was puzzling, to say the least.

After all, it is not exactly easy but is at least a familiar problem to harden targets and to get the people within those targets accustomed to the idea that they are permanently living in some level of increased danger.  Apparently, after 9/11, Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups offered to share with the government their expertise in dealing with the constant threat of violence.  That the Bush II White House quickly said no -- demonstrating to their hard-right base that they would rather let people live at risk and in fear rather than seeming to treat abortion providers as valuable and patriotic citizens -- does not change the fact that there are ways in which even non-government targets cope with terrorist threats.  (See also synagogues and mosques, which have also been forced to become familiar with counter-terrorism measures.)

Similarly, I was based in Oklahoma City during my judicial clerkship, working in the federal courthouse across the street from the site of the Murrah Building, which had been destroyed seven years earlier in a planned explosion by American terrorists.  Although the blast site had subsequently been cleared and a beautiful and moving memorial had been built there, the underground garage where I parked had once extended under the Murrah Building, and the mangled steel beams and crumbled concrete were still visible.

In addition, the site was still on high-enough alert that every car was stopped by security upon entering, and the guard would use a mirror on what would now be called a selfie-stick to check for explosives under every car.  That was another in-your-face, constant reminder about what had happened and yet might happen again, but it was in its way heartening because the extra security made the sense of terror decidedly less upsetting than it might otherwise have been.

The idea that terrorists would return to the scene of the crime, or in the case of jihadists that they would continue to focus on the same targets, made a bit of sense.  I know someone from Philadelphia who in the years since 9/11 has refused to go to Center City there, because she is sure that the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall are obvious foreign terrorist targets.

I was not sure whether it would make her feel better to tell her that, frankly, the terrorists that she was worried about had probably never heard of either of those landmarks -- or of Philadelphia itself, for that matter.  As far as foreign terrorists are concerned, there is both the desire to hit highly salient targets and a simple lack of knowledge about the United States.  What they know (and hate) is the U.S. government, making Washington and New York (the latter because some probably presume that it is somehow also our national capital city, and also because it simply is synonymous with the United States) the obvious targets.

During those years, however, I would occasionally wonder why the terrorists were not figuring out that it could be much more effective to hit non-targets simply for the sake of adding uncertainty and thus more terror to the equation.  For example, if one truly wanted to put fear into people's daily lives, would it not have been effective to fly one or more single-engine planes into random neighborhoods in random cities and suburbs?  Choose a low-density suburb near a non-major city, especially in the Midwest or the South, and all of a sudden the game has changed.

I never wanted to say such things out loud, because even though they are surely familiar to those who are experts on these matters, it seemed better not even to think about it.  But this is exactly where we are now with the domestic terrorism in the U.S. that is being perpetrated by white supremacists.  Because I grew up near Toledo, it was especially heart-wrenching to hear Donald Trump mention my city as the target, even mistakenly.  Even so, it was already an awful situation because some members of my immediate family live near Dayton.  Neither Toledo nor Dayton is Washington or New York, and that is the point.

Personal connections aside, we are now in a situation where the white supremacists have essentially stumbled without any apparent plan into a particularly effective campaign of terrorism.  It is no longer only people who work on Capitol Hill or in Times Square who must live with the uncertainty of when the dreaded threats might become real.

That is not to say that white supremacists have not been somewhat predictable in their targeting.  The Murrah Building was not a random target.  Internal Revenue Service attacks are sadly common, and the Charleston and Pittsburgh mass shootings in very recent years had a sick logic to them.  But the increasing frequency of such attacks has combined with a certain randomness -- a musical event in Las Vegas?  a garlic festival? -- to make it now impossible for people to think that "it won't touch me."

I absolutely do not doubt that Donald Trump's words and actions have emboldened the white supremacists in this country and elsewhere.  Even so, the one thing that he definitely cannot be accused of is having a coherent strategy (about anything), much less to have communicated any such plans with a network of followers.  Similarly, the self-styled grand wizards and other hatemongers are barely able to lead a few followers, much less to create a bin Laden-like network of evildoers.

And that is the most fascinating part of all of this.  Without trying and without guidance or centralized decision making, white supremacists have inadvertently found a way to enhance their effectiveness simply by being disorganized and even a bit hapless.  Other terrorists, it seems, tried so hard to become more effective in their murderous plans that they missed the opportunity to do maximum damage.

The good news is that the white supremacists' de facto strategy might finally have caused a reaction in the rest of us that will allow us to reduce and ultimately minimize (without, admittedly, ever completely eliminating) the damage that they would inflict.  If so, then their lack of organization will work against them as effectively as it has perversely helped them thus far.