Monday, August 28, 2023

Performing for the Masses

Juliette N. Kayyem is a lawyer, author, former Boston Globe columnist, former Homeland Security official in the Obama Administration, weekly guest on Boston Public Radio, and national security analyst for CNN. Either she can't hold a job or has a wealth of experience and knowledge few others do. Unlike most people well traveled, in her case it's the latter.

Kayyem also writes for The Atlantic, and on Saturday morning wrote about the murder of three black persons in Jacksonville, Florida by an assailant who evidently picked them out for their race. Accordingly, Kayyem noted

The Jacksonville killer, though, wasn’t just killing for his own and neo-Nazi branding. His other audience was the Black community, there and throughout the nation....

The Saturday shooting occurred on the fifth anniversary of the Jacksonville Landing mass shooting—a fact the killer was apparently aware of. It also occurred on the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the civil-rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Whether the killer knew this doesn’t really matter. African Americans do.

We have heard, and will continue to hear, this and similar points about white supremacy on liberal, non-progressive MSNBC and CNN because the murders were intrinsically related to race. However, Kayyem goes where very few others go- at the story behind the story- when she explains

His actions yesterday were not just a hate crime. They were a performance for all the world to see. This is the age of mass shooting as production. And we misunderstand what is happening if we see this as a play with only one act at a time.

The Jacksonville crime was one of a larger pattern, Kayyem recognizes, inasmuch as

Right-wing violence is done by individuals, but they are organizing and learning from an online apparatus as well as the actions of previous like-minded killers. Mass killings from the past, in New Zealand or Norway or South Carolina, are studied and replicated, each feeding off the others. Like foreign terror groups, these men seek to use violence as a way to attract attention to their cause. “The culture of martyrdom and insurgency within groups like the Taliban and ISIS is something to admire and reproduce in the neo-Nazi terror movement,” a 2019 online poster advocated on a neo-Nazi site. These killings are done to amplify that movement’s perverse narrative of America—that white people are still in charge and that many of them are willing to kill to prove it, and they do so publicly to terrorize.

In an age of social media and the dark web, members of this sect find one another on platforms that welcome them. The public display of hate is part of the act. In recent years in Jacksonville, and in Florida more generally, the neo-Nazi movement has grown. Earlier this year, neo-Nazis projected anti-Semitic messages on buildings—look at us!—throughout the state. These were linked to a Jacksonville-based neo-Nazi group called National Socialist Florida (NSF). We do not yet know if the Jacksonville shooter had any knowledge of or ties to that group, but a federal civil-rights investigation will surely look into that question.

Look at us.  It's the performance that emboldens and energizes.  Normally, the impulse to be performative takes relatively benign forms, such as going to a concert, standing throughout and taking pictures of oneself to send to friends and relatives. However, among individuals who lack easy access to, or comfort with, firearms and are scarred by evil, the performance can take a much darker and deadlier form. In Jacksonville

According to information released at yesterday’s press conference, before he pulled the trigger, the gunman called his father. He directed him to look at his computer, where he had left his manifestos, the playbill of right-wing terror. He wanted to make sure his intentions were known. Hate-filled screeds had been written to his parents, law enforcement, and the media; he was leaving nothing unsaid.

Race, of course, here and in other instances. However, there also is a story to be told about social media (from four years ago, below) and its perverse impact upon millions of young Americans whose actions do not sink to the level of mass murder. 

Periodically, this sparks a flurry of concern about among elected officials, leading nowhere. More often, there is silence. Juliette Kayyem's voice is not enough to move the needle. However, along with the need for gun safety legislation, the influence of social media upon vulnerable Americans cannot be neglected forever if we wish to prevent incidents even more horrifying than we witnessed over the weekend in Florida.


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