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In The Age Of Online Extremism, What Constitutes A Lone-Wolf Attack?


About 20 minutes before he opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, the alleged shooter posted a racist screed online. Police say it contained white supremacist language and singled out Latinos and immigrants. Authorities believe he acted alone. Now we're going to look at what acting alone really means, especially when people in online communities may actively encourage people's violent extremism.

Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University, San Bernardino, and he joins us now.


BRIAN LEVIN: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: So when a shooter acts alone, we often describe them as a lone wolf, but what is actually meant by that? What does that mean to you?

LEVIN: You know, this is a big topic of debate within our national security community. I think on the one hand, yes, there are folks that execute the attacks alone, but they're cultivated and radicalized through an ecosystem which takes their jumbled fears and grievances, sculpts it into something that scapegoats others and then says, hey, here's what you can do to make things better; go do an attack. But the fingerprints from that ecosystem aren't all over the crime scene like the assailant's.

SHAPIRO: So it's one thing to - I don't know - pick up a newsletter or a book or a magazine and get an idea that radicalizes you, but it's something else to actually talk online with real humans. How are we to think of those other real humans who may be encouraging the violent behavior but might not be officially coconspirators in the crime?

LEVIN: Decades ago, I interviewed skinheads, and they talked about propaganda of the deed. You know, you go out, and you find a Jewish person, a gay person, a black person. And they boot them. They beat them. And that was it. The message was the violence, and it was generally done around group activity in the terrestrial world.

We are now seeing these young people - what they're doing is they want to not only commit an act of violence, but they want it to validate them as some kind of iconic person inscribing into this bible of hate where they write the next chapter that is memorialized at the time of the violence and then references back prior violence and prior racist screeds.

SHAPIRO: Is it fair to describe these people who are on sites like 8chan, talking every day with a lot of people who share their ideas - is it fair to describe them as acting alone?

LEVIN: No, I think they're part of an ecosystem. We went through hate speech on the Internet, and we saw hate speech rising on the Internet around certain political or catalytic events. And guess what? We also see a correlation to a rise in hate crimes by white supremacists around these debates and discussions.

SHAPIRO: And yet, you know, I think about the alleged shooter in Dayton, Ohio, who was part of a rock band that had violent, misogynistic lyrics. And people in this music community in the Midwest say, yeah, we were singing songs about violence and misogyny, but we weren't actually doing anything. We were using this as an outlet. We had no idea that he was taking it seriously. So where do you draw that line?

LEVIN: That's where an investigation can start. A lot of these folks will end up merely using this as some kind of steam vent. But here's the problem - for every whatever number of person just - are venting steam, we now have ticking time bombs who, because of stressors in their life, because of grievances - that is then sculpted into an ideology that glorifies lone violence.

SHAPIRO: After 9/11, the FBI and law enforcement spent a lot of time and money trying to map the ecosystem of extremism within Muslim communities. Do you think they are where they need to be in mapping the ecosystem of extremism, hate and violence in these white supremacist, white nationalist communities?

LEVIN: No. This year, we now have more white supremacist homicides - just now, through August - than all the extremist homicides in all of last year. We have to approach this with the same vigor that we approached violent Salafist jihadists, especially with the online and increasingly fragmented social media universe.

SHAPIRO: That's Brian Levin. He directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Thank you for speaking with us.

LEVIN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 6, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web introduction to this report mistakenly referred to California State University, San Bernardino, as UC-San Bernardino.
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