The El Paso Terrorist Attack: The Chain Reaction of Global Right-Wing Terror.

AuthorMacklin, Graham

On August 3, 2019, Patrick Wood Crusius, a 21-year-old from Allen, an affluent suburb 20 miles north of Dallas, Texas, allegedly drove some 650 miles to Fi Paso, a journey of more than 10 hours. He then allegedly walked into a Walmart Supercenter near the Cielo Vista Mall on the city's eastern side and opened fire on shoppers using a WASR-10 rifle, murdering 20 people including a 25-year-old mother of three whom he killed as she held her two-month-old baby. Two more shoppers subsequently succumbed to their wounds in hospital, bringing the death toll to 22; another 26 people were wounded. (1) The terrorist attack in El Paso was the seventh-deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. It was also the third-deadliest shooting in Texan history, the worst since a gunman murdered 26 people during a rampage at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs near San Antonio in November 2017. (2)

Prior to the atrocity, Crusius allegedly posted online that he recognized that his death was "likely inevitable" and that if he was not killed by police, he would be gunned down by one of the "invaders." Aware that the crime he was about to perpetrate merited the death penalty if he was captured alive (and envisaging a future in which he could not bear to live knowing that "my family despises me" for what he had done), Crusius stated: "This is why I'm not going to surrender even if I run out of ammo. If I am captured, it will be because I was subdued somehow" (3) His online bravado evaporated in the wake of the killings, however. Crusius surrendered without firing a shot. Having driven to a nearby traffic intersection, he stopped and waited for police. Exiting the vehicle with his hands raised above his head, Crusius told the arresting officers: "I'm the shooter." (4)

Transported to El Paso police headquarters, Crusius waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak about the incident. He informed the interrogating police detective of his racist motivation, that he had deliberately targeted "Mexicans." (5) El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen subsequently confirmed to the media that during his interrogation, Crusius "basically didn't hold anything back." (6) Crusius said that he had targeted El Paso's Hispanic community rather than one closer to his own home because, he reasoned, "if he committed the attack near his home in a suburb of Dallas, his family and acquaintances would have known that he did it," local media reported, quoting sources close to the investigation. (7) The FBI confirmed that Crusius had no local contacts in El Paso. (8)

When Crusius appeared in court for his arraignment hearing on October 11, 2019, he entered a "not guilty" plea to capital murder charges, (9) thus the following assertions must be considered allegations--based on press reports, manifestos, and court documents--which, at the time of writing (December 2019), remain to be proven in court. El Paso's county district attorney's office announced that it is seeking the death penalty for Crusius who is currently jailed without bond awaiting trial. (10) The U.S. district attorney for Texas' Western District, Joseph Bash, also stated that the massacre was being treated as "domestic terrorism" and that his office will be pursuing federal hate crime and firearms charges. (11)

Crusius, who had worked bagging groceries at a supermarket, stated in his application for a public defender that he had no income, assets, or expenses and had been living with his grandparents until about six weeks before the shooting. (12) On his LinkedIn page, since-removed, he wrote under "skills," "Nothing really." Crusius had graduated from Piano Senior High School in 2017 before enrolling himself at Collin College, a community college in nearby McKinney, where he studied from fall 2017 through to spring 2019. (13) A former neighbor told The Los Angeles Times that he was "very much a loner, very standoffish" and was someone who "didn't interact a whole lot with anyone." Former classmates alluded to the fact that he was frequently "picked on" at school. (14)

A Familiar Modus Operandi

The Fi Paso massacre followed an increasingly familiar pattern in which a manifesto posted online was followed moments later by horrific violence. At 10:15 AM, 25 minutes before the killing in Fl Paso began, an anonymous user posted two documents to 8chan's /pol/ board--the third time the image board, which eschews censorship of its content so long as it does not contravene United States law, had been used to announce the onset of a terrorist attack. (15 a) The first document, entitled "P_Crusius--Notification Letter," was quickly deleted, its contents unknown. (16) It was replaced by a second attachment entitled "The Inconvenient Truth," which served as the killer's alleged manifesto. The accompanying post, titled "It's Time," read:

FML [F**k My Life] nervous as hell. This is the actual manifesto F**k this is going to be so sh*t but I can't wait any longer. Do your part and spread this brothers! Of course, only spread it if the attack is successful. I know that the media is going to try to frame my [sic] incorrectly, but y'all will know the truth! I'm probably going to die today. Keep up the good fight. (17) There are no reports that any 8chan users alerted the authorities. The ritualized act of posting a manifesto prior to undertaking this form of extreme-right violence serves as a powerful act of propaganda designed to deliver an explanatory narrative, an ideological justification, a tactical lesson, and a call to arms for others to follow. (b) Given the self-referential nature of extreme-right violence in the digital age, those who leave manifestos have become "more influential and highly regarded than those who leave only a vacuum," J. M. Berger has argued. (18) Sociologist Ralph Larkin argued in relation to the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, which left 13 victims dead and 24 injured, that such an event provided a "cultural script" for subsequent would-be high school killers, for whom the death toll at Columbine was a record to be exceeded; for others, it was an incitement to further violence, an event to be emulated in their own killing sprees, or indeed a tradition to be 'honored' in their own attacks. (19)

A similar "cultural script" appears increasingly evident within the digital demimonde of the violent extreme right. (c) Arguably, this phenomenon began in 2011 with Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who, although once considered something of an outlier with regard to extreme right violence, has become an aspirational figure for some within the milieu. While Breivik received praise in some quarters, (20) few militants sought to emulate his actions, at least not until the Christchurch attacks, a catalytic event in part because the atrocity was livestreamed, a deliberate device its perpetrator intended to galvanize others to action. (21) Indeed, as alleged Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant had been inspired by Breivik, so Tarrant inspired both John Earnest, the Poway synagogue attacker, and Patrick Crusius, both of whom in their turn hoped to inspire others through both their manifestos and deeds. (22)

To help conceptualize the momentum this latest wave of violence has attained, Mark Granovetter's "threshold model of collective behavior," (23) which has recently been used to interpret the prevalence of high school massacres, (24) is useful. Put simply, Granovetter's model enjoins analysts to consider these violent acts not simply as resulting from individual decision-making, each considered in isolation from one another, but as part of a broader social process in which violence is enacted in reaction to, and in combination with, other actors. While would-be terrorists might be reluctant to move from extreme thought to violent action, as more and more people participate, the thresholds (both social and moral) for partaking in violence begin to lower. And as they do, increasing numbers of people are able to contemplate and indeed have situated their own actions within a continuum of violent activity that has preceded their own, giving the phenomenon a depth of meaning that the word 'copycat' fails to convey. More research is required to understand why this occurs in some cases but not in others, however.

Insofar as extreme-right terrorism is concerned, the digital milieu has played a key role in lowering such thresholds; each act of killing and the way in which it is glorified and gamified through countless memes on forums like 8chan, provides impetus for further violence. Indeed, as Frederick Brennan--the founder of 8chan who has since parted company with the image board he had created--remarked, it is the very structure of 8chan that radicalizes users:

The other anonymous users are guiding what's socially acceptable, and the more and more you post on there you're being affected by what's acceptable and that changes you. Maybe you start posting Nazi memes as a joke...but you start to absorb those beliefs as your own, eventually. (25) Arguably, such forums, which provide users with a supportive digital ecosystem, also play a role in shifting behaviors. They comprise a milieu in which the 'saints' and 'martyrs' responsible for previous atrocities are venerated by other anonymous users. Regardless of whether such posts are made in jest or in all seriousness, there are seemingly no shortage of users willing to gleefully exhort other users to join this pantheon of 'heroes' by perpetrating yet greater acts of violence in return for the nebulous reward of celebrity and respect that this environment offers. (26) "The new guy deserves some praise," wrote one 8chan user following the El Paso attack in a post that echoed both the performative and gamified elements of this subculture, "he reached almost a third of the high score." (27)

The personal status derived from placing on the leader board' within this online milieu appears to have fostered an element of...

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