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Colour of Terror

Stephen David is a Bengaluru-based writer specialising in public policy, politics and religion
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White racists and their black deeds

A WHITE bigot went on a madness rampage this week—March 15th, 2019—in a fatefully named city called Christchurch in New Zealand: Australian White supremacist Brenton shot down 49 people who had congregated for their Friday prayers at two mosques.

The killer even livestreamed his diabolic act on Facebook apart from posting a 74-page manifesto on social media to let the world know his raison d’être for his murderous mayhem.

(Brenton) Terrant, 28, by his own admission came from a humble background from a European ancestry “barely achieving a passing grade”. But that didn’t stop him from getting radicalised online by fiery Whites-only-are-great terror group Ku Klux Klan whose octopus-like tentacles are spreading far and wide from their century-old American home base. Although the Klan originated in the American south after the beginning of the Civil War, the world noticed it rearing its ugly head as a secret society in the 1920s. The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation showed White supremacy smashed to smithereens by their coloured rivals and the ensuing battle royale for control.

Whether one likes it or not, if America sneezes, the world catches a cold. For better or worse, the Pilgrim Fathers and leaders like John Winthrop who was instrumental in the founding of Harvard in 1636 exhorted the pilgrims fleeing Britain for a bright future in New England across the Atlantic to make their new habitat a city on the hill. American presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan popularised this phrase, ‘city on a hill’, from the sermon by Jesus on the mount to his close group of disciples as recorded by his disciple Matthew, the first book in the New Testament. Rhetoric from the US has wide-reaching ramifications far away across the seas. And in a highly wired digital world, information zips across zillions of cables and the cloud faster than the speed of light.

It helps the American President Donald Trump—the Aussie killer in New Zealand hailed him as a symbol of White supremacy—to pump the volume of his messaging to the world outside. Trump must vigorously denounce the attacks and the attacker’s excuse for the big kills and not be impervious to the White supremacists’ domestic terrorism that has spiked over time. A nightmare of dystopia must knock the daylights out of policy leaders, grappling now with Hitlerite horrors and silent Brenton Terrants awakening us to a new world of fear emerging from their sleeper cells.

An analysis by a US group, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), shows White supremacists’ propaganda efforts increased 182 per cent in 2018 with 1,187 distributions across the US. The previous year, 2017, there were only 421 total incidents. There were almost a hundred White supremacist rallies in 2018 compared to a mere 76 the previous year. Another group that tracks the trends reported that right-wing extremists were linked to 50 murders in 2018, almost a 35 per cent increase from the previous year, while the number of hate groups across the world’s largest democracy touched a whopping 1,020! ADL Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Greenblatt was quoted saying that “the modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalised like never before…”

A Black editor, Elecia Dexter, replaced a White newspaper editor in Alabama because his editorial calling for Ku Klux Klan to ride again drew widespread condemnation. It seemed like a symbolic moment. Dexter resigned this week—after the Terrant terror—although she said that she wanted to make the paper reflective of the community it serves in Linden, a small town in western Alabama. On March 25th, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr led thousands of non-violent demonstrations to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after a 5-day, 54-mile march.

Norway’s right-wing White supremacist Anders Breivik raved and ranted the White world enveloped with the cloud of immigration and the looming death of the White nation in his 1,500-page manifesto—a public declaration of intent and belief whether it is fulfilled or not. Extremist, right-wing violent killer Breivik remained calm and composed throughout the time he shot dead 77 people in a youth camp in 2011 in Norway. Even when the judge sentenced him to life in prison, Breivik remained unmoved. He demonstrated his commitment to his idiotic manifesto by standing up to the judge and with his fists clenched saying that he regretted that he didn’t kill more!

But why are they coming out of the deadwoods in a killing manner? A White racist, David Lane, who killed a Jewish radio host in 1984, summed up why the Breiviks, Terrants and Lanes do what they do in a 14-word manifesto that he wrote in his jail cell. Lane succinctly captured it here: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

In the dystopian world, one bad man inspires another bad man. Iron strengthens iron but in a deadly way. William Pierce, author of the 1978 The Turner Diaries, inspired Timothy McVeigh who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1994. In 2015, another American White supremacist and mass murderer, Dylann Storm Roof, aged 21 at that time, used a Glock 41.45-caliber handgun and murdered nine African-Americans including the senior pastor during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof told the police that he hoped to ignite a race war. And for him to target one of the oldest halls of worship that advocated and preached communal harmony was cruel.

Roof too had a manifesto published on a website, even posing with emblems associated with White supremacy. Even worse, the young man was laughing in a video confession of the church shooting as he detailed how he walked without anyone stopping him at the historically Black church (of course, the church doors are open to all). Roof is awaiting execution at the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana after he was awarded the death sentence in January 2017.

The global threat of White nationalism or the spectre of right-wing extremism that threatens to drown the world is exacerbated by the presence of explosive content online and the easy reach to young Roofs and Terrants to convert them from ‘normal youth’ to killing machines brainwashed by equally chilling recruiters and mentors who turn them into tormentors.

Black rights evangelist Martin Luther King Jr. fought against White supremacists’ convoluted theology from the church pulpits in Birmingham, Alabama. He fended off the KKK dragons by mining deep into the sacred texts of his Bible, standing up to ferocious dogs and water jets unleashed by racist White cops. Today the battle has shifted to the manifestoes online, and governments backed by tech companies in the heartland of Silicon Valleys or plateaus, must work hard and fast to erase satanic verses from filling young minds.

What motivated Terrant to kill people is what motivated Adil Ahmad Dar to strap himself with a deadly belt of explosives, load his van with kilos of RDX and press the accelerator to his—and multiple others’—instant death. Boston University professor, Jessica Stern, who has studied killers of all hues and colours for over 20 years around the world, is an authority on online radicalisation. Terrorist recruiters, sociology studies now say, know how to harness humiliation into a vehicle of terror. It is much more than xenophobic hatred. The boy from Kakapora in Pulwama would be indoctrinated in the school of killing people and he would willingly offer himself as a battering ram on the altar of a deadly ideology.

Stern, who has been studying mental makeup of killers, has found one common thread that runs through suicide bombers of every hue, colour, ideology and geography: a personal humiliation experience. It is the same story with White supremacists or neo-Nazis, religion-hating or religion-embracing or paid mercenaries.

Stern, author of ISIS: The State of Terror, has crunched her findings from hours and hours of interviews with hundreds of terrorists—from lone wolves to team players—across the globe into five key points. 1) misguided motivation by wrongly interpreting political and religious manifestoes; 2) a personal experience of humiliation making the potential killer prone to political and religious narratives; 3) religious terrorists see the world in terms of good and evil, not grey or anywhere in between; 4) young terrorists are often confused about the religion they profess to follow; 5) alienation and confusion about identity.

Although there will be no sure-fire psychometric indices that will show a potential terrorist in our midst, policy leaders and society and community elders can interpret visible markers to positively intervene and save the day. Aadhar creator and technocrat Nandan Nilekani talked of leveraging demographic dividend. The world has nearly two billion young people whose strengths must be leveraged for the public good. And they must be done fast with or without government help. Like gangsters who seduce young boys and girls to their cause, there will be online gurus who will change innocent people into sadists swimming in rivers of blood who will love to climb on mountains of dead bodies.

Ideologies compete in an open market to lap up young, willing minds. There is no reservation here. The private sector must stand in the gap in a big way and bring on board lakhs of young men and women to be part of the mainstream. And they must work to do that on a war footing.

Almost a billion youth have net access, a critical factor to lift the population out of poverty besides ensuring economic growth and prosperity.

The United Nations reports four in ten people in the world are under 25 years of age. Roughly, 40 per cent of the world population. And the numbers are on the upswing in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. An explosive tinder box that can burst into a major ball of fire.

Radicalisation is cognitive and behavioural. At the cognitive level, a potential killer embraces the radical ideology hook, line and sinker. And that belief drives him or her on a deadly path from where there is no return (the killers, of course, think they are on a highway to heaven). As Stern notes, the quest for significance may indeed be an important driver of extremist behaviour. It is high time we used psychology as a powerful tool for positive transformation.

Studies show that far-right extremism and White nationalism are emerging as bigger problems around the world, especially in Europe with the advent of refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries. Extreme right-wing attacks rose from nine in 2013 to 30 in five years, one of the highest there in three decades. Michael Burnett, senior director for counter-terrorism, National Security Council at the White House, recommends that governments, private sector and civil society, work together to combat terrorist radicalisation and recruitment, including the ones enabled by online terrorist propaganda. Tech companies have been asked to strictly enforce their terms of service and community standards that forbid the use of their platforms for terrorists’ purposes.

In 2018, industry leaders publicly launched the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism: Facebook removed over 99 per cent of ISIS and al-Qaida content before users flagged it, blocking most within a minute of posting. YouTube has quadrupled the percentage of terrorist-related videos taken down before they receive ten views—from 8 per cent of takedowns a year ago, to nearly 50 per cent today. There is an urgent need to develop credible alternate voices. A famous TV anchor, Mike Wallace, interviewed a Holocaust survivor, Yehiel Dinur, who testified against the Nazi killer Adolf Eichmann at the 1961 Nuremberg trials. The Auschwitz camp survivor collapsed in a heap on the courtroom floor after seeing Eichmann. He told Wallace why he lost balance: “I saw that [Eichmann] was an ordinary man, not the godlike army officer who was sending hundreds of people to the gallows to be burnt alive. I saw that even I was capable to do this [kind of killing]. I am exactly like he…”.

Trump was asked in the Oval Office if he saw White nationalism as a rising threat around the world? His answer: “I don’t really... I think it is a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.” Though, as Wallace said, Eichmann is in all of us.