Who cares about the motivation of the Highland Park shooter?
At a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, celebrations came to an abrupt halt after a gunman opened fire. Parade Video shows panic as hundreds of people fled the area. Seven people were kill, with at least 46 others injured. But in In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, attempts to understand the shooter’s motivations showed how much the mainstream discourse on extremism is failing us.
Following the mass shootings, we race to identify the shooter’s motivations and answer the question of what radicalized them. Often people look to a shooter’s manifesto for answers (although manifestos should not be taken at face value). In the case of the Highland Park shooter, there is none. And while he has a violent digital legacythe absence of overt political motivations makes this shooting different from other acts of white supremacist extremism.
Or, at least, that’s the conclusion some people are running with.
This week, NPR published an article claiming that experts agree there is “no clear political or ideological motivation” for the shooting. Instead, the shooter “fits a still-emerging profile of a mass shooter” less known than “white supremacists or radical Islamists.” This seemingly new profile is defined by involvement in dark online subcultures, nihilism and an obsession with violence, per NPR.
Within 24 hours, NPR’s article went to hell and back on Twitter. A researcher on extremism tweeted the “dark subcultures” NPR refers to are not without ideology but, in fact, are well documented as neo-nazi recruitment platforms. On the face of it, NPR’s framing is awful, while the article claims the Highland Park shooter “has no ideological or political leanings”, that’s hardly an established truth. In April, the last day of Passover, the shooter (who, by the way, was the administrator of a Discord server named “SS”) delimited a local synagogue and was turned away by the rabbi there. The The Jewishness of the Highland Park Shooting was also described by Jewish journalists.
On Twitter, screenshot circulating from Emmi Conley, an independent researcher of far-right movements interviewed by NPR, stating that there is no doubt that the shooter was racist and anti-Semitic. “He committed this act of violence almost certainly because of these things,” Conley wrote. “But that wasn’t the thing he chose to feature when he did, and that’s significant.”
This accuracy is not so much better for me. He always prioritizes what the shooter chose to direct and what he chose to “present”, over clear evidence as to why he did what he did. I’m not interested in understanding the filming of Highland Park through the lenses of quote-unquote experts, as they bend over backwards to mince words.
Instead, I want to return to a topic I spoke about earlier: the futility of domestic terrorism frameworks (which includes counter-extremism) to combat white supremacy. After the Atlanta shootings last year, I wrote about how calling white supremacists “terrorists” doesn’t help. The filming of Highland Park presents another problem with the attempt to approach white supremacy through existing frameworks. Some people try to argue that this particular shooter could have been hateful, yes, but he doesn’t fit the profile of a white supremacist mass shooter. Who should I ask: according to whose parameters?
I always had trouble with the term “white supremacist extremist” because it sounded strange. After all, what is non-extreme white supremacy? Beyond semantics, white supremacist extremism as a category of focus has, ironically, clouded people’s opinions in trying to squeeze white supremacy into a well-understood box.
To be considered a white supremacist extremist, someone must meet clear and identifiable standards. The Department of Homeland Security defines as “individuals who seek, in whole or in part, by unlawful acts of force or violence, to buttress their belief in the intellectual and moral superiority of the white race over other races”.
Developing a profile of anything automatically risks masking the different ways in which it might manifest. Something will always fall outside the strict definition, whether on purpose or not. White supremacy is no exception. For example, the Ku Klux Klan is generally recognized as a white supremacist organization. But the DHS is arguably also a white supremacist entity. Its violence may not manifest exactly like that of the KKK, and it may use the national security languagebut that does not erase actions that disproportionately target non-white people in this country.
Experts say the Highland Park shooter doesn’t fit the bill of a white supremacist extremist because while he was “hateful,” as Conley tweeted, his environments “emphasized violence rather than hatred. It’s different from someone leaving a manifesto saying “here’s who I targeted and why”.
Except it’s not, really. So the Highland Park shooter didn’t write a manifesto or write an insult on his gun to demonstrate his white supremacy. And? This is the kind of difference that might matter to academics who theorize for theory. But outside of this bubble, it has no practical value. This person took a high-powered rifle to a rooftop and fired indiscriminately into a crowd of people attending a neighborhood parade. This is by definition an extreme action.
The Highland Park shooter is not exceptional. He is not special or unique. He’s a white supremacist. Focusing on him as an example of a new emerging profile makes it possible to read the “dark subcultures” NPR refers to as mysterious new creations. They become deceptively apolitical, detached from the larger stories of violence they glorify and which only serves white supremacy as a whole.