We need to talk about the ideas that drive people to mass murder. Or, rather, the idea.
The idea was presented to me in its fullest form as I arrived in Norway in 2011, the morning after 69 young people had been chased to their death on the island of Utoya and another eight people blown up with a truck bomb in Oslo. I was e-mailed a copy of the 1,518-page manifesto the terrorist had written to justify his act. The Templar cross on its cover at first pointed to fringe movements. But reading the document over the next weeks, I found that his inspirations were far more mainstream and familiar – a set of authors and voices, some widely known, that had crept into the mainstream of publishing and online conversation.
Last week, as I pored through the 74-page manifesto of the man who slaughtered 50 worshippers in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I found an astonishingly similar set of phrases, references and quotations, and the same well-articulated idea. The idea was similarly expressed, in police interviews and testimony, by the man who killed six worshippers in a Quebec City mosque in 2017. It was also expressed in detail by the guy who shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh late last year.
The idea was articulated by the Christchurch killer using the academic-sounding phrase “demographic replacement,” and by the Oslo killer as an “invasion” threat to “European civilization.” Sometimes it is called “white genocide.”
Some have traced this racial conspiracy theory to a book by a French extremist. Yet there is no need to dig so deeply, as the idea has become shockingly commonplace.
For example, a lot of the language in the Christchurch killer’s manifesto resembled passages from a 2009 bestseller titled Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by the U.S. conservative writer Christopher Caldwell, who certainly doesn’t advocate violence or terrorism, but plants some pickable cherries. The book opens with a question: “Can you have the same Europe with different people?” And its (negative) answer portrayed non-Christian Europeans, especially Muslims, as questionable in their loyalties and “strengthened by common doctrines” that make them “Europe’s biggest liability in preserving its culture.”
There has been a lot of that sort of language in recent years. Some of the proponents of “replacement” theory have become members of Donald Trump’s inner circle. Last week, a candidate for Alberta’s United Conservative Party resigned after 2017 texts came to light that she was “saddened by the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands.”
Yet our conversations about this toxic conspiracy theory often fall prey to fallacies.
There is no innocent or moderate version of these ideas. The ideas that motivate these killers are often glibly characterized as “anti-immigration.” That is not the point. People hold all sorts of legitimate views about immigration, and believing that it should be slowed or stopped is a valid policy opinion.
On the other hand, any notion of “population replacement” or demographic “invasion” or “genocide” is not an opinion about immigration at all. It is race hatred.
There is no other interpretation of those ideas, and there is no moderate or acceptable version of them. If you believe there is something called a “Christian civilization” or a “white European people” or even simply “our people,” and if you believe that your neighbours who are Jewish or Muslim or brown or black are capable of “replacing” it, that means you see your fellow citizens who worship differently or have different skin colours, and their future children, as something permanently other than yourself.
That is the very definition of racial intolerance.
We shouldn’t outlaw those ideas – banning hate speech only strengthens its marginal appeal. Nor, however, should we regard it as anything other than targeted incitement. “Demographic replacement" is a polite-sounding incantation of a concept that seeks to justify murder.
Islamic terrorists are motivated by the same idea. Too many people see our scrutiny of right-wing terrorists as detracting from or masking the threat of jihadi terrorism. Yet it is unwise to regard these as distinct threats: They both emerge from the same world view, and they reinforce one another. (For example, a senior Islamic State official responded to the Christchurch slaughter with a call to terrorism using very similar language). Both are built on the same mythologies of “invasion" and “replacement.”
As the Austrian terrorism researcher Julia Ebner writes in her book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far Right Extremism, “both the far right and Islamist extremists use narratives that victimize their in-group and demonize the defined out-group, resulting in a worldview that frames everything through the lens of two inherently opposed homogeneous blocs … they use the same plot of an imminent or ongoing war between those two fronts.”
They are circles of very similar young men, hearing a very similar idea, often from the same sources. And we’ve given them far too much rhetorical ammunition.