The United States has in the past month experienced two mass shootings. The first was on 20 July at a midnight film screening in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, when twelve people were killed and seventy injured; the second was on 5 August at a Sikh temple in Oak Tree, Wisconsin, where six were killed and three injured.
In each case the perpetrator was a single white male, aged 24 and 40 respectively (the Aurora gunman, James Eagan Holmes, was detained while the Oak Tree one, Wade Michael Page, was shot by the police before killing himself). Beyond these similarities, however, the treatment of the Wisconsin murders in the media is distinguished by a focus on its alleged political motive: namely, white supremacy.
The fact that the killer in Wisconsin embraced a xenophobic ideology has led commentators to compare the shooting at the Sikh temple not so much to the Colorado incident but rather to two earlier "extreme-right terrorist acts": the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, and the Oslo bombing and Utoya massacre in July 2011 by Anders Breivik. But although this and other similarities should be taken into account, so should the differences, which are at least as important.
It is necessary to bear in mind that, at the time of writing, it is still not known exactly why Page went on his shooting-spree and why he chose the unlikely target of a Sikh temple. The post-9/11 experience, when there were many examples of Sikhs in the US being attacked and targeted because they were wrongly identified as Muslims, has led analysts to assume that Page was in the grip of the same "mistake". There are two reasons why this seems unconvincing.
First, members of the white-supremacist movement, though normally not the best-educated members of society, do tend to "know their enemies". So, for example, after Wisconsin several white supremacists in the US commented on blogs and websites (such as Stormfront) that Sikhs were among the "least threatening" of non-white immigrant groups. In the United Kingdom, the British National Party (BNP) has even explicitly reached out to British Sikhs, whom they see as both the most pro-British and the most Islamophobic of the immigrant communities; while the radical-right activist group the English Defence League (EDL) counts a Sikh (Guramit Singh) among its members, and has created an opportunistic anti-Muslim alliance with some local Sikhs in the town of Luton, north of London.
Second, the city of Milwaukee - of which Oak Tree is a suburb - has a fairly sizeable Muslim community, with one of its mosques, the Masjid al-Huda, only six miles from the Sikh temple. It's true that Page had only recently moved to Milwaukee, but if Islamophobia was his main motive, it remains to be explained why he wasn't able to identify an actual Muslim target within his reach.
This leads to the two main differences between Page, on the one hand, and McVeigh and Breivik, on the other. First, the level of planning. McVeigh had prepared his attack for months, and in some level of cooperation with others (he had to rent a truck, collect explosives, and so on). Breivik too had spent months organising his operation, from stashing guns to wiping clean his hard-drive. By contrast, Page arrived at the temple with just one handgun, legally purchased about a month earlier (which makes him possibly the least-armed mass shooter in modern American history). This probably also explains why, fortunately, the human toll of his attacks was much lower than that of Breivik or the Aurora shooter.
Second, the ideological background. Both McVeigh and Breivik were connected to radical ideologies and subcultures that were well connected to mainstream discourse. McVeigh was a classic product of the paranoid militia subculture of the 1990s (which has actually made a strong resurgence, albeit in a different guise, during Barack Obama’s presidency). Breivik took his inspiration from radical-right politicians such as Geert Wilders, but also from American conservatives such as Bruce Bawer and Daniel Pipes. Hence, while his actions were universally condemned, some accounts of the tragedy referred to his motives in approving terms.
Page, in sharp contrast, roamed in the dark depths of white-power music, a scene so obscure and marginal that it took journalists a couple of days to produce even a rudimentary portrait. The broader white power and neo-Nazi currents are completely beyond the pale of even radical-right politics in the United States, and the main watchdog body describes their former leading organisation, the National Alliance, as a "joke".
The implication of these factors is that the US authorities should direct its attention less to "hatecore", to possible international connections and extreme-right terrorism, and more to the threat of extreme-right individuals in general, and former military with extreme-right ideas in particular. This was done in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, although the (ex-)military connection was quickly sidetracked; moreover, as a consequence of recruiting problems for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military relaxed its no-extremism policy for several years.
In 2009, the incoming Obama administration published a report by the department of homeland security, entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. It warned explicitly of potential violence from former military personnel with extreme-right ideas. The right-wing media and political elite were furious, even accusing Obama and the department secretary Janet Napolitano of a "hit job on conservatives". The administration withdrew its report and, it seems, reassigned most of its researchers to supposedly more important threats. The leading desk analyst, Daryl Johnson, tried to refocus attention to the threat of the extreme right, but his failure to convince his colleagues led him to resign.
The fruits of this neglect may well have become apparent in the Wisconsin incident. This makes it essential that the Obama administration addresses the danger of violence from the extreme right with new seriousness. The various preventative actions by law-enforcement agencies make clear that the extreme right is being watched. But it is even more vital that the administration should be more explicit and open about what it perceives as the main threats.
Clearly, this should not become a witch-hunt, neither of people with extreme-right ideas nor of (former) military personnel. But the combination of extremist ideas (of whatever political or religious persuasion) and military experience is potentially deadly - as Oklahoma City, the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, and now Oak Tree all show. Citizens deserve a watchful state, but also an open state, which can be held accountable for its surveillance. As a first step, the Obama administration should re-instate the 2009 report and reassign a significant number of analysts to the homeland-security department's extreme-right desk.