The first two amendments to the United States Constitution enshrine the right to freedom of expression, and the right to bear arms. In recent years, we have seen a new movement of fascism and white supremacy wield these rights to foster hatred amongst anonymous internet communities, giving rise to several mass shootings.
In New Zealand, the alleged shooter that livestreamed his attack on a mosque in Christchurch posted a political manifesto to the now notorious messageboard 8chan. Similarly, in the United States, the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto to this same site, referencing that very attack.
In New Zealand, the government responded immediately, establishing stricter gun laws and further encouraged gun owners to turn in their guns, which many of them did. Telecom providers blocked access to 8chan. In America, on the other hand, Cloudflare removed its protections from 8chan, but no institutional change has been set forth by the government.
Julia Rallo spoke with Patrick Blanchfield about the epidemic of gun violence and asks the question: do mass shootings emerge from free-speech message boards like 8chan, or from American culture itself?
Patrick Blanchfield is part of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and author of the forthcoming book Gunpower.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Julia Rallo: Many people have referred to recent shootings, more specifically in El Paso, as acts of racist domestic terrorism. Do you agree with this idea? If so, what do you think has fostered these recent extremist views?
Patrick Blanchfield: I mean, it’s a fraught question right, because in any plain sense of the English language, clearly this is a type of terrorism. It’s a type of public violence driven by an explicit political ideology, targeting specific people and that is rooted in a social movement that historians have written a great deal about called ‘white power’, and that’s a definable thing. What makes the current conversation so difficult is that here in the States, for the past eighteen years, we work extremely hard to arrive at an understanding and definition of terror that is anything but the clear obvious definition of it. So when people ask, ‘Do we situate this as terror or not?’, is always related to how is this going to be part of our ‘war on terror’. This produces a whole suite of other questions related to race and other things as well.
JR: Is the issue of white supremacy new or has it always been lingering in American society?
PB: It’s baked in. It’s one of the most basic questions. I think we over here sometimes have difficulty just owning it, because it’s so close. In the work I do, I try to historicise and ground these particular events within a historical narrative and for me, there is probably nothing more foundationally American than white men massacring large amounts of people, in order to claim territory and assert their masculine authority, etcetera. So yes, in a technical sense there is a way in which this is a new phase of a social movement that has existed in recent years under the white supremacist framework. It’s impossible to think about gun violence in this country without thinking about white supremacy altogether.
JR: Why might the current state of culture in America be to blame for recent shootings?
PB: I think, American history doesn’t repeat per say, it rhymes. One thing I write about a lot is how, as I go to different places and I talk and do interviews, I always try to find a recent mass shooting and I look 200 or 300 years ago to the same place: was there a massacre of indigenous people? Was there a slave revolt that was put down brutally? I have never been unable to find that. So, in some ways, if what’s so scary about these mass shootings is that they happen in public space, in everyday America. The existence of America itself it the creation of that space through this kind of violence. That is the deep structure. Also, our President is transparently invoking the worst kind of settler-colonial white supremacist grievance. He is tapping that deep structure. It’s hard to do the one-to-one thing, but, at the point at which an American goes to El Paso – which last time I checked isn’t an Anglo-Saxon name for a place – archaeologists are still discovering mass graves from people executed by Texas Rangers when America first claimed that region from Mexico. It’s some kind of insanity when the President says ‘send them back’. They were there before we were.
JR: Would you argue that hate-inspired mass shootings are more prevalent in America during President Donald Trump’s term as a result of his own dialogue and immigration policies?
PB: There is some definite data on hate crimes particularly. And clearly, we have a President who is actively encouraging all kinds of violence against vulnerable people, and that’s not just the things he says, the things his audience says to him, which he enjoys hearing. Very clearly, he’s playing with that. I don’t know specifically if we could empirically and numerically say there is more of this specific type of violence in a direct causal way. It certainly seems that these things are getting more attention. It feels like they’re happening more. Once you start thinking [that] this is about white supremacy in general, these recent shootings are part of a long sequence that pre-exists Trump himself.
JR: Have the motivations of shootings changed over time?
PB: Possibly, the thing is that it’s always the question, who gets shot? And you get a sense that there is a basic idea of who is disposable and whose deaths do and don’t matter in terms of political change and that’s been pretty consistent.
JR: Are other factors to blame? For example, the influence of video games in America or issues with mental illness.
PB: The video game thing is bullshit. That’s nonsense. Last I checked, the Japanese play about five times more video games per average adult than Americans do, and they don’t have mass shootings. This might indicate that there are some other factors. The mental health thing often comes from a similar place of bad faith that the arguments about video games come from too. Statistically speaking, people with mental illness are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence – whether its interpersonal violence or self-harm – than they are to ever perpetuate it. There is a way in which people who are talking about how we need to focus on mental health will defund what little remains in the way of mental healthcare in this country. They are perfectly fine with people not having insurance or not being able to pay for medication. Mental health becomes a way to control people who are already vulnerable, and to blame them and not talk about guns or racism. I’d think that’s something to bear in mind. One way we could talk about mental health productively is, how would we understand sanity or health of a culture that makes it thinkable for people to do this?
JR: 8chan fosters acts of terror, as we have seen before. What role do these types of message boards play? Are they ever entirely accountable?
PB: I think there’s definitely an argument to be made and is grounded, that these websites are like petri dishes for particular types of subcultures and they egg each other on. But I would always argue that with the petri dish analogy, you’ve got to think about what the rest of the lab looks like too, what else is getting bred there? Remembering the Columbine mass shooting, we didn’t have social media at [that] point, but every single one of the shootings that reaches a certain major body count and political notoriety, we talk about how this relates to subcultures. I definitely agree that 8chan is a toxic place, and it is shutting down or moving on. But also part of me feels like there’s a 9chan out there.
JR: Would you say the President is encouraging these acts?
PB: I think he’s encouraging the worst possible kinds of human disposability across the board. About a year ago, there’s a video of it, he’s talking about border security, laughing. He says something about ‘You see what they do in other countries, what do they do, what do we do?’ and someone in the audience yells ‘Shoot them!’ and he smiles and clearly hears, and says ‘Well you can’t do that here’. At this point, de facto, this is being fostered, that type of hatred is being kindled and encouraged. It is being made public in a new kind of way.
Julia Rallo is an undergraduate student at the University of Auckland.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.