Once again a U.S. citizen has been killed in a terrorist attack on American soil. Like the perpetrators of the recent London Bridge attack and the 2016 incident in Columbus Ohio, a man conducted a spontaneous attack based on an extremist ideology. He even copied the tactic of his predecessors, using his car to run down innocent pedestrians. This time, however, the killer was not an Islamist extremist, an immigrant, or even the children of immigrants. He was a White, Christian American with ties to a racist movement.
The investigation is ongoing, but a disturbing picture of James Alex Fields, Jr. is already emerging. The 20-year-old Ohio man (originally from Kentucky) accused of deliberately driving his car into a crowd, killing one person and wounding 19 others, traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia to participate in a “Unite the Right” rally convened to protest the planned removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park. He was photographed at the rally holding a shield provided by Vanguard America, a white supremacist organization. The group released a statement insisting Fields was not a member but admitting handing out the shields to people who wanted them.
Like Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston church massacre and Jeremy Christian, the man charged with murdering two people on a Portland train, Fields fits the profile of the lone wolf. He is also part of a pattern of right-wing terrorism that has plagued the United States in recent years. Lone wolves are difficult to combat. They often espouse the ideology of extremist groups to which they do not officially belong. Because they act alone, often spontaneously, lone wolves are hard to identify until they strike.
Disavowing Fields does not, however, relieve groups like Vanguard America of responsibility for the mayhem they inspire. Hate groups in the United States exploit the first amendment, walking a fine line between inspiring violence and openly inciting it. They spew their racist rhetoric knowing full well that some people will act upon it. Vanguard’s manifesto advocates a nation of “blood and soil” (i.e. a country dominated by Caucasians) and condemns multiculturalism. It then proclaims disingenuously that the group does not advocate lawlessness. Whatever their avowed intent, neo-Nazi, sovereign citizen, white supremacist and other hate groups create the ideological environment that motivates lone wolves to kill.
Countering the violence of extremists begins with challenging their belief system. First and foremost we must deny them any legitimacy. That means replacing the euphemism “white nationalist” with more accurate terms like “racist” or “bigot.” Our leaders need to condemn the perpetrators unequivocally and by name. Perhaps it is also time to have a serious discussion about free speech. Where does the boundary between the right of a group to say whatever it pleases and the rights of ordinary citizens to live secure in body and mind truly lie? “Freedom from fear” is a fundamental human right.
Each of us can help counter the extremists message with one small gesture. It would be a glorious thing if this Labor Day weekend we flew our flags over the “hate has no home here” signs that have been popping up on lawns all over America.