Who Draws Our Concern After a White Supremacist Attack?

Focusing and speculating about a mass shooter’s background can obscure the lasting damage on targeted communities.

August 9, 2019

In the wake of far-right and white supremacist attacks such as the mass shooting in El Paso on August 3, where a gunman killed 22 people and injured dozens of others, the focus of the conversation too often focuses in quickly on the shooter. Were they a loner? Were they bullied? Were they mentally ill (though research suggests that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims, not perpetrators of violence)? Rarely do we have a conversation about the mental well-being of the communities targeted by such violence. But it is a necessary conversation, because when attacks target not just individuals but their identities, the harmful effects reverberate far beyond the initial violence into our broader communities.

According to his alleged manifesto, the El Paso shooter specifically targeted Hispanics as his victims because of his white supremacist beliefs. As a Mexican American, I read the manifesto and the news coverage with creeping terror, knowing that those who were targeted became victims simply because they looked like me or spoke my language. And with a hate attack like this, the fear that spread through me and others in the targeted community is part of the point.

Hate crime attacks have been shown to leave deep and lasting psychological distress in their immediate victims, as well as the broader targeted community. Research shows such attacks can lead to feelings of insecurity, isolation, and vulnerability. It can also lead to decreased civic engagement in victimized communities, especially when it does not appear that anyone — politicians, civic leaders, or law enforcement — is willing or able to meaningfully address the violence. This is especially true when the targeted communities already lack political, economic, and social standing, including recent immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people of color.

It is important that our responses to far-right and white supremacist violence do far more than speculate about the causes of such violence or about the appropriate punishment for the perpetrator. Too often, our justice system focuses only on the offender and offers very little to the communities affected by terror. Instead, we need to acknowledge and treat the real and wide-ranging harms that white supremacist violence inflicts on affected communities. In our recent report, Fighting Far-Right Violence and Hate Crimes, we recommend that policymakers adopt restorative justice practices, which can include community forums, education, outreach, and mediated victim-offender conferences that help victims and their communities.

Traditional policy responses to hate crimes have focused on creating new laws and increasing penalties. But we don’t need new laws to address the problem — there are already 52 federal terrorism charges, as well as 5 federal hate crimes charges and federal conspiracy charges which can be used to effectively prosecute these crimes. Instead, we need to shift toward federal policy that properly prioritizes the investigation and prosecution of white supremacist violence and recognizes the need to understand the scope of this threat and the trauma it inflicts on our society. This requires expanding the conversation beyond just the offender and implementing policies that address the communal injuries caused by hate-inspired violence. A restorative justice approach is a promising way forward toward helping to heal the harms experienced by victims and communities touched by this awful violence.

(Image: Mark Ralston/Getty)