Some political leaders have a hard time condemning racist shootings. Why?

by Colin P. Clarke and Jacob Ware

Last month, a terrorist inspired by white supremacy opened fire at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Fla., killing three Black people. The 21-year-old gunman, who had initially intended to attack a nearby historically Black university, had written several manifestos detailing his racist ideology, and one of his two legally purchased firearms was marked with swastikas.

Acts of terrorism against minority communities are frequently directed at soft targets defined by their openness, like supermarkets. The perpetrator of an August 2019 attack at a Walmart in El Paso wrote in his manifesto that “it is not cowardly to pick low-hanging fruit. AKA Don’t attack heavily guarded areas to fulfill your super soldier COD fantasy. Attack low-security targets.”

Such violence is intended to upend a sense of safety and belonging within those communities. A supermarket shooter in Buffalo in 2022 wrote in his manifesto that he desired “To show to the replacers that as long as the White man lives, our land will never be theirs and they will never be safe from us.”

Perpetrators of “blood and soil” violence seek to show immigrant and minority communities that they are not welcome. It is thus crucial that government leaders publicly and unambiguously reject such narratives. Americans have failed on this front, but there are successful examples abroad.

After an anti-immigrant attack in Germany in February 2020, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel used unusually direct language in declaring, “Racism is a poison. Hatred is a poison.”

Immediately following Islamophobic attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said publicly of the attacker: “You may have chosen us — but we utterly reject and condemn you.” Her counterpart, conservative leader of the opposition Simon Bridges, also opted for inclusive language: “… every New Zealander feels this wasn’t just something targeted at our Islamic community … it has happened to all New Zealanders, and all New Zealanders are grieving with them.”

United fronts in the face of far-right violence have the potential to deter would-be copycats. But in the U.S., prominent Republicans have fed into the rhetoric. Last October in Mesa, Ariz., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told a crowd: “Joe Biden’s 5 million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture. And that’s not great for America.”

 While former President Donald Trump has not made a statement condemning the terrorist attack in Jacksonville, President Joe Biden has declared, “we must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America.”

Far-right terrorists’ rationale in choosing targets can be understood like that of jihadi terrorists, who distinguish between “near enemies” (Middle Eastern dictators) and “far enemies” (the U.S. and Israel).

For the far right in the U.S., one near enemy is the government, which extremists see as responsible for “the great replacement” of white Anglo Christians with ethnic, racial and religious minorities. Contrarily, far enemies are minority groups labeled as the demographic replacers.

Some far-right terrorists choose the government as their target believing only maximum aggression can accelerate change. But the Jacksonville attacker, like those who targeted supermarkets in El Paso and Buffalo, calculated that a far-enemy attack not frontally targeting the government would be less likely to cause an aggressive crackdown. One year after the Buffalo attack and four years after the El Paso massacre, the extremist movement has faced no consequences for the actions of these followers.

The failure to appropriately respond to the carnage in Buffalo may have contributed to new violence elsewhere. A shooter targeting a gay bar in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, last October directly cited the Buffalo shooter’s targeting choice as inspiring his own decision. And Nazi symbols on one of the Jacksonville gunman’s firearms suggest he too may have followed the Buffalo model, where much attention was paid to the aesthetics of the shooter’s weapon.

In today’s highly partisan and polarized political climate in the U.S., the bold steps needed to curb acts of far-right domestic terrorism — including meaningful gun reform, aggressive steps to combat radicalization online, and the enactment of a domestic terrorism statute — remain almost unimaginable.

But we should be able to get the rhetoric right: After attacks on minority communities, U.S. leaders from across the political spectrum should condemn the violence and the conspiracy theories behind it. Failure to do so is costing lives.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm in New York City. Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations where he studies domestic and international terrorism and counter-terrorism.