The pattern is becoming frighteningly familiar: A white man, radicalized online at alt-right media websites and through social media into hateful white nationalist beliefs built around the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism,” walks into a mass gathering of his selected targets (which can be any of the perceived participants in the conspiracy, including liberals, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, any nonwhite person, LGBTQ folk, even moviegoers) and opens fire.
That was the scenario that played out Saturday, once again, in Poway, California, at the Chabad of Poway Jewish congregation, when a 19-year-old California man named John Earnest burst through the doors and began firing. Though he injured three other people, including a young girl, he only killed one person—Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60—before his gun jammed and his would-be victims chased him out of the building. He fled in his car and surrendered to police a short while later.
He had also posted a manifesto online that told us precisely his motivations for the attack—as had other right-wing domestic terrorists, from Anders Breivik to Dylann Roof to the Christchurch killer. More to the point, it was clear that he drew from exactly the same cesspool of online white nationalism and its belief that “cultural Marxism” is destroying civilization that motivated those other mass murderers, as well as a long line of like-minded far-right terrorists.
The Poway attack, in many ways, cements a pattern that was already emerging, and may signal a new age of terrorism—one in which chain terrorism, where one act of violence inspires another act that follows, exactly as it is intended to do, is a manifest reality.
This pattern has been emerging clearly over the past few years. Anders Breivik’s 2011 mass killing in Norway that left 77 dead was partially inspired by the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 by Timothy McVeigh. Dylann Roof killed nine black people in a Charleston church in 2015 because he believed similar theories about “white genocide.” John Russell Houser, inspired by Roof’s manifesto, walked into a Louisiana movie theater in 2016 and began killing people watching an Amy Schumer film. In Pittsburgh, Gab regular Robert Bowers killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 because he believed that Jews, particularly George Soros, were part of a “cultural Marxist” cabal financing the “caravan” of immigrants on the Mexico border. The Christchurch killer also left behind a manifesto praising Breivik and Roof among his chief inspirations.
The Poway killer’s manifesto makes this abundantly clear. “If you told me even 6 months ago that I would do this I would have been surprised,” Earnest wrote. “[Christchurch killer] Brenton Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally. He showed me that it could be done. And that it needed to be done.” He later added: “Brenton Tarrant inspired me. I hope to inspire many more.”
Indeed, the final paragraphs of Earnest’s manifesto are explicit descriptions of his hope that he will inspire acts to follow. “I have complete trust and certainty that all of you after reading this will begin planning your attack on the enemy—and you’ll attack again, and again, and again—until either we win, or we die,” he wrote. “I know you will do this because you’re true anons. You’re White men.”
The Poway manifesto also makes references to “cultural Marxism” as a product of nefarious Jewish cabals, and clearly buys into its underlying claims, which also clearly spurred him to act out violently.
“In case you haven’t noticed we are running out of time,” he wrote. “If this revolution doesn’t happen soon, we won’t have the numbers to win it. The goal is for the US government to start confiscating guns. People will defend their right to own a firearm—civil war has just started. Stop the slow boil of the frog—prevent the Jew from using incrementalism. Make the Jew play all of his cards to make it apparent to more people how their rights are being taken away right before their eyes.”
Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Extremism and Hate at California State University, San Bernadino, says the newer dynamic replicates the old content, but everything happens with much greater speed. “In pre-Internet days, the violent extremist act itself of neo-Nazis and white supremacists was considered messaging and labeled ‘propaganda of the deed,’” he told Daily Kos. “Today, sociopaths, particularly ideological ones, are seeing social media not just as a radicalizing and messaging tool, but also as an archive of a folkloric warrior narrative,” he continued. “Once they too act out, they have a link to notorious killers of the past, where their new manifestos are inscribed in a continuing perverse online subculture of scripted violence.”
The fantasy belief that their acts of mass murder would inspire their ideological brethren to follow in their footsteps in a mass uprising has been part of far-right terrorist mythology since the rampage of the Order in the Pacific Northwest in 1984, modeled in part on the neo-Nazi blueprint for such a “race war,” William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries. (Pierce’s second book, Hunter, also created a blueprint for “lone wolf” killers to follow with a story of a relentless serial assassin and mass killer who targets blacks, Jews, and “race traitors.”)
Timothy McVeigh believed the Oklahoma City bombing would spur a white revolution, as did Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics bomber, after him. A number of other mass killers, including Breivik, have expressed similar hopes. For the most part, those hopes have been largely unrealized—until now. These terrorist attacks make clear why using the term “lone wolf” to describe them is mostly a misnomer, at least used in the way it is often understood in the mainstream press as “utterly idiosyncratic violence unattached to any organization,” usually with side connotations of mental illness and an ideological vacuum. Because these attacks are all connected, one after the other, by the inspiration each perpetrator draws from the acts preceding it. In the end, it becomes an unbroken chain with a spiraling death toll.
Another term for this might be sequential terrorism. But whatever semantics we choose to apply, the reality is that we are indeed in the midst of a flood-tide of red-pilled white men, most of them young and eager to make names for themselves through acts of extraordinary violence. Look for Saturday’s violence to keep repeating itself—perhaps in varying settings, but each one inspired by the murders before it.