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The Czarist image of mass shootings

In almost every generation since 1880, some young men have decided it would be fine to kill a large number of people

August 6, 2019

11:55 AM

6 August 2019

11:55 AM

Let’s retire the term ‘gun violence,’ or reserve it for jealous husbands who shoot their wives. What happened in El Paso is terrorism; more properly, it is a nihilist insurgency.

We should pause to consider the origins of this phenomenon in late Czarist Russia, the cradle of modern terrorism. There is an eerie similarity between America’s shooter culture and the sinister and contagious form of violent nihilism that emerged between 1861 and 1866 in Russia. A number of young men seemed to decide that it would be fine to kill a large number of people. No one knows why. The killer in El Paso scribbled a lunatic alt-right manifesto; the Dayton murderer, to judge from his Twitter feed, was drawn to far-left bromides. But neither were in the thrall of a genuinely intelligible ideology. The killings were sanguinary performance art, detached from any set of principles. They could have walked off the pages Dostoevsky’s Demons. Does Verkovensky not sound familiar?

‘…one or two generations of vice are absolutely essential now. Monstrous, disgusting vice which turns man into an abject, cowardly, cruel and selfish wretch – that’s what we want. And on top of it, a little “fresh blood”…We shall proclaim destruction – why? why? – well, because the idea is so fascinating! But – we must get a little exercise. We’ll have a few fires – we’ll spread a few legends. Every mangy little group will be useful…There’s going to be such a to-do as the world has never seen, Russia will become shrouded in fog, the earth will weep for its old gods.’

The narodniki — whose terrorist wing undertook a campaign of assassination that culminated in the murder of Czar Alexander II — inspired anarchists and political assassins throughout Europe and the United States. Then as now, this sinister form of violent nihilism proved contagious. Now it is spread by the internet; in the late 19th century, it was spread by novel technologies, too: the telegraph, the daily mass newspaper, and railroads. Then as now, the disease could be traced to Russia, but it adapted and merged with local pathologies.

A trio of causes — the invention of dynamite, anarchist incitement to ‘propaganda by the deed,’ and a sensationalist media — persuaded publics in Europe and America that these killing sprees, in fact infrequent outside of Spain, represented a movement vastly more powerful than it was. Then as now, the public was fascinated, terrorized, and manipulated by a small insurgency of radical losers, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger termed them. The losers spent the next 30-odd years picking off heads of state before achieving an unlikely triumph: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand set Europe ablaze. It is important to remember this. The consequences of this species of violence vastly exceeded the imaginative capacities of its authors.

Many have pointed out the similarities between 19th-century anarchist terrorism and modern jihadism. James L. Gelvin argued forcibly for the proposition that jihadism is a form of anarchism — Islamic anarchism — essentially a Western phenomenon, 60 years dormant: the areas of resemblance include the preference for action over ideology, the obsessive focus on resistance to alien intrusion, the lack of programmatic goals, the pursuit of violence for its own sake, the hatred of the established world order, and the tendency to operate in decentralized cells. Before he died, Walter Laqueur wrote The Future of Terrorism: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Alt-Right, tracing all three movements back to their origins in Czarist Russia. In 2011, David Rappaport wrote of the four waves of modern terrorism: the anarchist wave, from 1880-1920, followed by the ‘similar, consecutive, and overlapping wave’ of anti-colonial terror, then ‘the new left-wave,’ and then the ‘religious wave.’ ‘If it follows the history of its predecessors,’ he wrote, Islamist terrorism would ‘disappear by 2025, and a new one may then appear.’ We seem to be right on schedule.

In almost every generation since 1880, a number of young men have decided that it would be fine to kill a large number of people. The Czars were almost forced to their knees in 1905 by this kind of violence. In the end, they put it down, but they did so by an application of utterly ruthless force — all in vain, of course.

The extensive literature on previous waves of terrorism, and our now-considerable experience in combatting insurgencies abroad, should inform us as we consider our problem. It is the same species of thing. If we hope to devise a policy that might mitigate it, we must call upon that experience.

Experience suggests that routine incantations of the words ‘white supremacists’ and ‘federal background checks’ won’t have a hope in hell of working. We must think in counterinsurgency terms. We now have an international, mass-murdering subculture. There is a distinct communications infrastructure through which young men are radicalized. How can we dismantle this insurgency? Because it is happening in America, we’re enjoined from employing the more effective tools we’ve developed to counter insurgencies abroad. Our record abroad suggests, too, that many of the tools we’ve tried have been ineffective — indeed, they have made the problem worse — and there is no reason to imagine they would be better at home. This should sober those who keep repeating, ‘Imagine what we’d do if al-Qaeda were doing this.’

What works? Our government has a great deal of skill and practice in taking down insurgent communication networks. That works. But the First Amendment prevents us from going after 8chan the way we did ISIS’s propaganda channels. For the moment, large technology corporations have stepped in where civilization and morality have fallen apart. But the ethical and political ramifications of this are unclear and disturbing: How viable is the American proposition if speech is now to be mediated by giant technology corporations, with overwhelming public support?

The First Amendment likewise prevents us from taking another obvious step: forbidding the media to report on these events. Terrorism makes no sense unless it’s a spectacle. If we banned the media from reporting on these massacres and turning every one of them into a lurid, ritualized mass spectacle, the shootings would stop. Does anyone doubt that? I have lived in countries where the government has the power to do that, and it does. It works. But it is not the American way. Obviously, we can’t defend an open society by turning it into a closed one. So those strategies do not seem available to us — yet.

Still, the public response to these events has so far been confused. A wave of terrorism like this — it will continue, to judge from the past, for a generation — will sooner or later create overwhelming demand for a response. And the kind of response that works would not put the Second Amendment in jeopardy so much as the First.

‘Comprehensive background checks’ are a slogan, not a solution. They will not put so much as a dent in this problem. The fact is there are already more than 300 million guns in America. We are not New Zealand. To a significant part of the American public, guns are an object of spiritual veneration, as sacred to them as the Qur’an is to jihadis. Burning them will have the same effect. Even if through the repeal of the Second Amendment and vigorous prohibition we managed to get half of these weapons out of civilian hands, there would still be 150 million on the streets. A contraband gun market would emerge as quickly as the market for opiates and enrich the same people.

More to the point, ‘getting half of them off the streets’ is completely unrealistic. The plain truth is we don’t have the civic trust to achieve that. Our country is divided into camps that loathe and fear each other. The more viciously divided the population, the less inclined will anyone be to give up their weapons. Efforts to confiscate them would inevitably lead to precisely the kind of scenario that becomes terrorist propaganda. If we’ve learned anything from two decades of fighting insurgencies abroad, one hopes we’ve at least learned not to hand the enemy own goals. And were somehow to achieve the miracle of making it difficult to acquire guns in America, history suggests that terrorists are inventive. They will graduate to IEDs and learn how to 3D-print their weapons.

A good portion of these shooters are ideologically motivated, as opposed to ‘mentally ill.’ The ideology may be unfathomable — a weird solution of white nationalism, Russian propaganda, and unfathomable sociopathy — but the fantasy of restoring a 7th-century caliphate was no less absurd, and no one in his right mind proposed seriously to dismantle ISIS by means of better psychiatric care. Talking about ‘mental health’ and ‘video games’ is preposterous in this context.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know what it isn’t: it isn’t ‘closing the gun show loophole,’ and it isn’t even getting Trump out of office. Trump a symptom, not a cause, and this will continue after he’s gone. In fact, if the Russian example is the right analogy, it will get worse, and Democrats and other politicians who helped to usher him out of power will become targets for assassination.

Enacting minor gun controls and electing a president who doesn’t egg the killers on could make some difference at the margins, and since ‘the margins’ represent human lives, these are steps worth taking. But we are deluding ourselves if we think either would be sufficient. No one should make this the focus of their strategic thinking. This delusion, too, will cost human life.

We have a much bigger, more depressing problem on our hands than our political class seems to grasp. The only good news is that these scum are not likely to get beyond killing a few hundred people at a time. They’re unlikely to get their hands on chemical weapons, barrel bombs, or a 747. Statistically, the vast majority of Americans will be fine.

But the historic evidence suggests that this will go on for a generation, at least, until, at best, it burns itself out, and at worst, they achieve another unlikely triumph.


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