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BUFFALO, NY – MAY 15: Jeanne LeGall, of Buffalo, hugs another visitor who came to pay their respects at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Buffalo massacre should shame the world

The Buffalo massacre should shame the world

BUFFALO, NY – MAY 15: Jeanne LeGall, of Buffalo, hugs another visitor who came to pay their respects at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Almost two years since George Floyd’s murder, this racist atrocity should not be treated in isolation from the poisonous climate in which it took place

The notion of the lone gunman – the psychotic outsider, the rogue destroyer – is a comfort blanket that is routinely clutched in the aftermath of unspeakable carnage. The mind struggles to absorb horrors such as the racist massacre on Saturday at a Tops supermarket in east Buffalo, NY, in which an 18-year-old white man slaughtered ten people and wounded three others with a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle: 11 of those he shot were Black.

Almost reflexively, the alleged perpetrator – in this instance, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron of Conklin, NY, who denies the charges of first-degree murder – has been categorised as “reclusive”, “an outcast”, and “very quiet”; often, in such cases, it emerges that the male suspect (always male) has been subject in the past to psychiatric evaluation after disturbing behaviour of one kind or another: Gendron, for his part, announced last year that he intended to stage a murder-suicide after graduating from high school.

This pathologises the alleged killer – and rightly so – but it also encourages a phony narrative of reassurance: one in which such murderous impulses are assessed only in terms of mental illness, individual depravity and personal dysfunction. Usually, such factors are important, because disintegrating personalities so often find solace in hatred and, with tragic consequences in violence. But it is an unforgivable cop-out to end the inquiry there.

As his grotesque 180-page Google Drive “manifesto” explained, Gendron saw himself as anything but a lone actor. In paragraph after paragraph of grandiose ravings, he imagined himself as one of many soldiers in the global war to defend the white race against its imagined antagonists – reserving special homage for Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who, in March 2019, killed 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. “Brenton’s livestream started everything you see here,” Gendron wrote. Like Tarrant, he subscribes to the twisted theory of the “Great Replacement”: the claim that white people are being systematically replaced by people of colour in a global demographic strategy supposedly orchestrated by a Jewish conspiracy. This was what the marchers at Charlottesville meant in August 2017 when, brandishing tiki torches, they chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” 

This deranged doctrine has played its part in other mass shootings: Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-American worshippers at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. in June 2015, declared at the prayer meeting that Black people were “taking over the country”; the gunman who killed 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 claimed that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered”; and the shooter who murdered 23 people in a crowded shopping centre in El Paso in August 2019, posted his own 2,300-word tract, denouncing the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”.

In the digital age, it is a false dichotomy to distinguish the organised terrorist cell from the network of individuals who download their hateful ideas and blueprints for action online. As Gendron says in his manifesto, he arrived at his beliefs “mostly from the Internet”; as if violent white nationalism were an app or a software – which, essentially, it now is.

Again, however, that is not the end of the story. These isolated, depraved men operate in an increasingly permissive environment; in which ideas that were once confined to the fringes of political discourse are now being seeded in the mainstream. 

Though presented in a variety of ways, “Replacement Theory” is now common coin among pro-Trump elected representatives and candidates. Elise Stefanik, the Republican congresswoman for New York’s 21st district, published a series of Facebook ads last September alleging that Democrats were allowing undocumented immigrants into the US as a means of outnumbering and disempowering Republican voters.

In the same spirit, J.D. Vance, the Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio who was recently endorsed by ex-President Trump, has argued that the Democrats are now importing voters en bloc so that “Republicans would never win a national election in this country ever again.”

Last month, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked rhetorically why the Biden administration was supposedly implementing an open borders policy: “Is it [that] really they want to remake the demographics of America to ensure that they stay in power forever?” Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has claimed that his ideological opponents are seeking to “drown” out “classic Americans”. What do you suppose he means by “classic”?

Most influential of all in driving this dangerous nonsense into the mainstream has been the Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson who has a claim to be the single most influential broadcaster in America today. 

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement’, if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” Carlson said in April 2021. “ “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”

A recent New York Times analysis showed how the presenter had given oxygen to “Replacement Theory” and the defence of so-called “legacy Americans” in more than 400 editions of his show. No less striking is the speed with which Carlson has been defended by elected politicians when attacked for such baseless propaganda. As Florida congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted in September: “@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America.”

To be clear: those who commit acts of racist murder are solely responsible, as the law dictates, for their horrific crimes. At the same time, it is idle to suggest that these crimes are committed in an ideological vacuum, or that the poison that they espouse has not infected the body politic more generally; because it most certainly has.

If the past decade has a headline lesson about power and its operations it is that we need to think about contemporary politics not solely in terms of institutions – perhaps not even primarily so – but with reference to networks and the cultural ideas, memes and calls to action that course through them. There is no longer a centre and a fringe: only a vast, amorphous digital matrix that fizzes constantly with claims and counter-claims, lies and insane theories, conspiracist statements and outlandish bigotry. With dizzying speed, today’s mad howl of rage from the dingy basement can become tomorrow’s high-gloss segment on cable television.

The Buffalo massacre is not, in other words, an isolated, detached anomaly but the bloodiest pole of a continuum of ideas, polemic and potentially murderous action. In this regard, it should be construed not only as a heinous tragedy but a symptom of transformative upheaval: a total change in the way that politics, technology and terrorist violence interact. It holds up a blood-stained mirror to the world in which we now live.

And “world” is the word. Another foolish placebo response to such atrocities is to dismiss America as a unique case because of its libertarian gun laws. True, an 18-year-old would find it much harder to get hold of a semi-automatic weapon in this country or on the continent. But – as the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 and the mass murders carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway two years later made horribly clear – weapons legislation is no guarantee against such ideologically-motivated attacks.

More to the point: the “Replacement Theory” that is now so influential in the US also has deep roots on this side of the Atlantic. The most significant – if preposterous – book on the subject, Le Grand Remplacement (2011), was written by a Frenchman, Renaud Camus, whose ideas are still quietly cherished by the followers of Marine Le Pen (in spite of the cosmetic surgery that her movement has undergone to make it less overtly xenophobic).

In the UK, such arguments were driven to the periphery for many decades by the outrage that followed Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 (in which he claimed that immigration had brought about a “total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history”). But the guard-rails that Powell inadvertently established have long since been smashed down.

A version of “Replacement Theory”, after all, has been central to Nigel Farage’s remarkable impact upon British politics. In 2013, he claimed that some Muslim people are “coming here to take us over”; during the 2016 referendum campaign he posed under a poster of dark-skinned migrants bearing the slogan “Breaking Point”; in 2019, he said of migration across the Mediterranean: “If we allow it to continue, we will actually, through our compassion, imperil the future of our civilisation.”

These are toxic, incredibly inflammatory ideas: they make the governance of our pluralist, multi-cultural society that much harder every time they are voiced by a politician with a bully pulpit. And they are ideas that, regrettably, reach around the globe: how chilling to learn that Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is reportedly one of the supposed enemies of the white race singled out by the Buffalo gunman.

To be clear: every national government is entitled and obliged to police its borders sensibly, compassionately and firmly. The control of population mobility is a basic feature of all statecraft. But it brings with it huge responsibility – a duty not to strike the flint near the tinder of potential disharmony.

We are invited to treat the UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda seriously as a policy initiative: in spite of its exorbitant cost, its dubious legal status and the warnings of officials that it will not work. Yet one wonders increasingly if it was ever really meant to work. According to Number 10 sources, the proposal “plays well” in Red Wall seats – which suggests, alarmingly, that this undertaking is, at heart, no more than performative politics, stoking up xenophobic sentiment as a distraction from the cost-of-living crisis. If so, the proposal is even more disgraceful than it initially seemed. It is populist recklessness masquerading as policy.

Lest there be any doubt: I am not in any way comparing the Buffalo gunman to British Cabinet ministers. They inhabit different moral universes. My point is rather that we cannot afford to be sanguine about the consequences of rash talk about immigration or asylum; or to unleash nativist demons in the name of a quick electoral fix. The continuum of deadly ideas and impulses to which I referred earlier is by no means confined to the US.

Finally, consider this: the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is only nine days away. Can we honestly say that things have got appreciably better as everyone promised they would? That there is less racial injustice? Was the world’s love affair with Black Lives Matter in 2020 – as a fine new book by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa on Floyd’s death and its aftermath puts it – no more than “a ceremonial, summertime fling”?

The sound of gunfire in Buffalo echoes around the world. It shames us all.