Last week's massacre in Charleston has once again torn open America's primal wound. Many of us believe that, despite the spate of police killings of young black men, racism in America is on the wane. And now this. A race crime so vicious that you desperately want to believe the suspected killer was just plain nuts.
It's clear that at the very least, Dylann Roof was deeply disturbed. Maybe he was high on drugs. But he chose his victims carefully. He allegedly told his targets at the prayer meeting that blacks were "taking over the country." According to friends, he said he wanted to start a race war.
Mr. Roof's murderous fantasies were fuelled by the Internet, which hosts countless racist websites – some borderline, some overt, most of them right there in plain sight. I dipped into a few of them. Their common theme is "white genocide" – the idea that the white race is coming under attack from all sides, around the world.
"White Genocide is being carried out by massive immigration and forced assimilation in White countries worldwide, and in all those countries, Whites' ability to resist their genocide has been weakened by restrictions placed on Whites and by constant propaganda that tells Whites that they're no good," says one typical statement.
None of these sites advocate violence against black people or immigrants. Instead, they paint white people as the victims of powerful forces beyond their control. The villains are numerous. They include white liberals, Jews, and, according to one site, "a loose collection of small but powerful groups which have a monopoly over the media and politics."
These days, you don't need to actually meet a bunch of Ku Klux Klanners to stoke your hate. You can get your fill on the Net. Some experts argue that lone wolves like Dylann Roof are even more dangerous than organized haters because they don't belong to a group that might offer an outlet for their rage, or curb their murderous intent.
Many people (including me) have been under the impression that white supremacism is a niche disorder that has all but gone extinct. That is not the case. Fear and hatred of non-whites has gone transnational, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows these groups closely. "The days of thinking of domestic terrorism as the work of a few Klansmen or belligerent skinheads are over," its leaders warned in The New York Times. "Today's white supremacists don't see borders; they see a white tribe under attack by people of colour across the globe."
Today, these groups stretch from the far-right parties of Europe to the anti-immigration groups of Australia and North America. In Canada, they typically warn that the white population will soon be swamped by nonwhite immigration. "Diversity is a code word for white genocide," several websites declare.
How many people out there harbour serious racial paranoia? Obviously there are quite a lot. How many may turn violent? It's impossible to know. But such groups are obviously a magnet for disturbed loners who want to blame someone when life – or the world – has gone wrong. The closest parallel to Dylann Roof is probably Anders Behring Breivik, the self-radicalized Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people because he wanted "to save Europe from Islam." Both men fit the description of a certain type of killer: lone-wolf narcissists who write manifestos about saving society through violence.
But how to save society from them? The usual answer (in the case of the U.S., at any rate) is gun control. But gun control may not even be the biggest problem here. The biggest problem may be the virus of hate, transmitted at the speed of light by the Internet.
On his website, according to media reports, Dylann Roof mentioned a group called the Council of Conservative Citizens, which he would have known only through the Internet. In the U.S. the CCC is a legitimate group that even makes political donations to certain politicians. Yet it is also undeniably racist. It declares that the United States is a "European country," and openly opposes "all efforts to mix the races of mankind."
Should that type of speech be illegal? No – not if we want to maintain a free society. Not even if it means that certain people catch the virus of hate. And that's the problem. All we can do is be vigilant – and pray we can stop them before they act.