On Saturday 3rd August, a gunman opened fire against civilians shopping at Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 20 and injuring 26. Prosecutors have already said that they will pursue hate crime charges against the suspect, but the FBI are investigating it as a case of domestic terrorism. They are right to do so.
Shortly before the attack the shooter, a white male, posted a manifesto claiming that the attack is a response to the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. In the manifesto, the shooter claims that he decided to target the Hispanic community after reading about “the Great Replacement”.
The Great Replacement is a popular conspiracy among the so-called ‘Identitarians’, a far-right movement that claims that Europeans are being replaced by Muslims and immigrants from third world countries. The group scapegoats immigrants for violent crime in society, claiming that Western countries would be safer without the influence of these cultures.
Identitarians claim to support non-violent activism in pursuing their main goal: for non-indigenous Europeans to be repatriated to their countries of origin.
However, after the Christchurch attack, El Paso marks the second time this year that the Great Replacement has been invoked to justify violent attack. Yet the Identitarians have succeeded in masking their exclusionary ideology as “hipster fascism”, with numerous mainstream publications glamorising their clean-shaven appearance— which is far from the popular imagery of how KKK and Hitler supporters look like.
Perhaps it is thanks to this “trendy” aesthetic that Identitarians have been able to promote their brand of far-right ideology as free speech with little challenge. Governments have only recently begun to take measures to combat this group: Austria is investigating its finances while the UK has permanently banned its leader from entering the country.
The ‘El Paso manifesto’ also uses highly inflammatory terms such as “invasion” to describe Hispanic immigration. This is a common tactic among the far right, aimed at demonising the “enemy” or out-group. To anti-Islam activists, Muslims are bringing sharia law to their countries. To neo-Nazis, Jews are working with the government to control migration flows.
This leads to an apocalyptic vision of the future in which white people are under threat of becoming a minority and losing power to foreigners. It is precisely this sense of impending doom that encourages the violent far right to wage a “race war”.
Given the references to far-right ideology in the manifesto, it is evident that the El Paso attack should be treated as terrorism. Hate crime charges are not necessarily incompatible with terrorism, but should not be at the expense of it.
Hate crimes are crimes committed against certain groups based on their protected characteristics, including race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. They cover a wide range of offences, including harassment, assault, threats and hate speech.
Legislation varies across countries, but while far-right groups can engage in acts of hate crime, not all hate crime is necessarily influenced by far-right ideology.
The debate of whether El Paso and similar attacks fall under state murder, hate crime or terrorism is part of a delayed global response to the far right.
Governments have been slow in allocating the same weight to domestic terrorism than international terrorism. It was only two weeks ago that the UK government changed its terrorism threat level system to reflect the rise of the far right—it previously only considered Islamist-inspired terrorism to determine the level of threat.
Given the growing number of terrorist attacks in the past years influenced by this ideology, governments cannot continue to politicise terrorism.
Extremism aims at disrupting social cohesion. Refusing to acknowledge this will amplify that gap.