Violent extremists are not lone wolves

As recently published by The Conversation, Rutgers University professor Alexander Hinton believes that the term ‘lone wolf’ is misleading, since violent extremists are almost always part of a group, and repeated use of this term could prevent efforts to combat violence from the far right from bearing fruit. In any case, this may have been true long before the age of social media.

After decades of research into numerous attacks that have left many dead, it is now documented that extremists are almost always part of a pack, not lone wolves. However, the myth of the lone-wolf shooter remains persistent and reappears in media coverage after almost every mass shooting or act of right-wing extremist violence.

Hinton believes that this myth diverts people from the real causes of extremist violence, which puts obstacles in the way of society’s ability to prevent attacks.

The threat of domestic terrorism is still high in the United States, particularly the danger posed by white power extremists, many of whom believe that whites are being “replaced” by people of colour.

Far-right extremists may carry out an attack alone physically or as part of a small group of people, but they are almost always connected and identify with larger groups and causes.

The vast majority of far-right extremists are actually ordinary men and women. They live in rural areas, suburbs and cities. They are students and working professionals. And they believe their cause is justified.

There are many examples of killings of people of colour committed by white men such as Patrick Crusius or Gendron, or the case of Timothy McVeigh, often portrayed as the archetypal lone wolf madman who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

In fact, McVeigh was part of a group. He had accomplices and was connected across the far-right extremist landscape. The same goes for Gendron and Crusius, who were also characterised in the media coverage as lone wolves. Both were active on far-right social media platforms and had published manifestos prior to their attacks. Gendron’s manifesto talks about how he became radicalised on the dark web and how he was inspired to attack after watching videos of Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Almost a quarter of Gendron’s manifesto is taken directly from Tarrant’s, which was entitled ‘The Great Replacement’. This fear of white replacement, centred around the perception of their demographic decline, was also a motive for Crusius. His manifesto pays tribute to Tarrant, before explaining that his attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”. The lone wolf myth also implies that extremists are abnormal deviants with antisocial personalities.

By using this term, which individualises extremism, Hinton believes that law enforcement officials may also depoliticise their work. Instead of focusing on movements such as white nationalism which have sympathisers at various levels of government, from sheriffs to senators, they focus on individuals.

This understanding provides a foundation for developing long-term strategies to prevent extremists like Gendron and Crusius from carrying out more violent attacks.

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