Timothy McVeigh and Brenton Tarrant are separated by 7,600 miles and a quarter century.
Yet, they are alike, says UC Berkeley professor Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, in that they came from the fringe of the far right to carry out mass murder and to try to begin a race war.
McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168. Tarrant is accused of killing 50 people last week in a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. McVeigh wasn’t able to incite an uprising, and Tarrant seems similarly unsuccessful.
“These guys think when they do these things that the movement is going to follow, that there is going to be a general uprising,” Rosenthal says. “That’s a long-held kind of fantasy or aspiration of this level of the American right. Timothy McVeigh believed that there would be a general uprising.
“Tarrant differs from others in that he sees himself as the leader of a movement which engaged in paramilitary and genocidal behavior. We don’t have a lot of that.”
What the United States has, along with the rest of the world, is a rise in the number of incidents that can be laid at the feet of the alt-right and white nationalists.
Rosenthal, who started the Center for Right-Wing Studies a decade ago, says there are links between what is happening in the United States and the shooting in New Zealand, and not just because Tarrant cited President Donald Trump in the statement of his beliefs that he wrote before the March 15 shootings.
“I think it’s fair to say the alt-right in this country was mobilized in response to the candidacy of Donald Trump,” Rosenthal says. “It existed at some level before that, but it was mobilized as a political force when somebody who was running for president spoke their language.
“Tarrant cites Trump as well. Both Tarrant and the alt-right don’t regard Trump as one of them. But they regard him as a vehicle to advance their point of view. What it is, most significantly, is indicative of the transnational networking among like-minded people like himself, and that’s a novel thing in our day. It’s owing to social media and the Internet. There is a kind of international or transnational quality to this networking which is kind of self-reinforcing.”
Rosenthal says there is a commonality between Tarrant and McVeigh; South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof, who killed nine in 1994; Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, the suspect in the October 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead, and Cesar Sayoc, who didn’t kill anyone, but who was charged with mailing more than a dozen bombs in October 2018 that were intended for Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and CNN, among others.
“It’s clear that this guy Tarrant sees these people as heroic,” Rosenthal says.
The rise of this form of terrorism, Rosenthal says, dates back to the 1970s when some French intellectuals, including Jean Raspail and later Renaud Camus, promoted the idea of “the great replacement.”
“What it means is that they believe there exists a global elite that is conspiratorial and has a long-range policy to replace white populations with African and, above all, Islamic populations. That sort of thinking is widespread in their network. If you remember Charlottesville, there were three chants the night (Aug. 11, 2017) they marched with their tiki torches at the University of Virginia campus.
“One was `blood and soil,’ which is a straight Nazi chant, which has almost nothing to do with the American experience of being settled by immigrant people. But there were two others. One was, `You will not replace us,’ which is the very same notion of `the great replacement.’ They also went a little further and chanted, `Jews will not replace us.’
“What is striking is that there appear to be more lone wolves these days than previously. “This is a movement whose aim is to hold onto existing status and privilege or to reclaim what they perceive as lost privilege.”
To combat this wave, Rosenthal says, democracy and democratic institutions all have a role.
“The institutions of liberal democracy have to be strong and maintain their strength,” he says. “We have seen the press respond powerfully to the rise of the alt-right and its relationship to Trump. The New York Times and the Washington Post have done that. And other institutions, noticeably the judiciary, have stayed strong.
“Liberal institutions are the first line of response to these incidents and movements. Now, the U.S.A probably has the strongest version anywhere of these institutions.
The other is what sociologists call civil society, which is people organizing themselves in response.”
Beyond that, Rosenthal says, it will be up to the military and the police to scuttle the alt-right’s “fantasy.”
“What these guys are hoping for, what is part of their fantasy agenda of a general uprising, is that institutions like the military and the police will go over to their side. One thing which is significant and important to defeat these people is to see that the military and the police don’t aid and abet or turn a blind eye to such provocations.”
Not that there haven’t been stumbles along the way, but Rosenthal says both of those camps have risen to the challenge.
Perhaps most significant of all is Rosenthal’s assertion that the extremists can’t be seen as defining the right wing.
“I am not condemning the right, per se,” he says. “I read conservative thinking and conservative media. I don’t conflate all of the right with what we are talking about here. I think it’s important to maintain one’s distinctions about people on the right and not throw everybody in the same bag. The right wing can’t be characterized fundamentally by what we see in Christchurch. Quite the contrary.
“Not everybody makes that separation. I think that when Hillary Clinton used her suicidal phrase `basket of deplorables,’ she was talking about the alt-right. And yet, the rally goers and the Trump supporters understood that to mean them as well. It is really important to make those distinctions.”