The Real Origins Of ‘Lone Wolf’ White Supremacists Like Dylann Roof

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHUCK BURTON
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHUCK BURTON

It didn’t take long this time for the American public to recognize that the political assassination perpetrated by Dylann Roof last Wednesday was a deliberate act of racist violence. But many in the media have pushed the narrative that Roof was a “lone wolf” — an isolated madman who acted alone. The term is popular with law enforcement agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, which has identified so-called “white supremacist lone wolves” as “the most significant domestic terrorist threat.”

As media outlets echoed the use of this term, they received push back from their readers who saw this as an attempt to detach Roof’s actions from a broader racist regime. These discussions belie the general ignorance of the history of white nationalist movements in the US beyond their body count. While the contention that law enforcement and the media cater to white supremacy is not unfounded, the contention that it created the term “lone wolf” to privilege white mass murderers is. Rather, it is a strategy coined by white nationalists to adapt their racist insurrection for a new age.

How we got here: the FBI, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Act

Prior to the 1970s, the white hate movement was divided into three camps: mainstream segregationists such as George Wallace and Patrick Buchanan, Christian Identity groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and white nationalists such as the American Nazi Party. Although there was overlap between these groups (particularly the first two), their organizations and ideologies were largely distinct. The first justified their racism with flawed social and biological science, the second with a revised Christianity, and the third with antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, segregationist and racist language became increasingly unacceptable for electoral candidates. Mainstream racists perfected a brand of dog whistle politics which spoke to racist sentiments without explicitly mentioning race.

As racial violence mostly led by the Klan continued, southern Black folks began to arming themselves in self-defense. Additionally, the FBI expanded COINTELPRO -– a program previously used to break up socialist organizations, student groups, and minority rights groups -– to infiltrate white hate groups across the country. While the illegal counterintelligence program was successful in its aims of dividing and diminishing these organizations, it also led to the merger of previously ideologically distinct organizations.

Coupled with the return of combat-trained veterans from Vietnam, COINTELPRO led to a qualitative split within white hate organizations. The formal organizations and alternative political parties such as the Klan, the National Socialist Movement, and the Aryan Nations pursued a nominally non-violent white nationalist line. Meanwhile, many members of these organizations began forming underground paramilitary organizations such as the White Patriot Party, Posse Comitatus, and The Order. While there was undeniably a large degree of cross-over between these two camps, both disavowed involvement in the activities of the other.

More “wolf” than “lone”

In the early 1990s, Tom Metzger thought up a new form of organized white nationalist violence. Metzger, who cut his teeth with various chapters of the Klan before dabbling in electoral politics, noticed that militant white nationalist organizations, including his own White Aryan Resistance (WAR), were being taken out through criminal conspiracy charges and civil lawsuits. Through WAR’s newspaper and later its website, he began to advocate for a strategy he called Lone Wolf.

The strategy itself is not limited to a single violent event. Rather, it emphasizes protracted, small-scale attacks to sew racial discord and to inspire others to do the same. In Metzger’s own words:

Always start off small. Many small victories are better than one huge blunder (which may be the end of your career as a Lone Wolf). Every little bit counts in a resistance….

Others will notice your activities, but never try to take any credit for them, your success should be all the recognition you need.

Metzger also advises Lone Wolves to “[n]ever utter more than the 5 Words to any agent or representative of ZOG [Zionist Occupied Government]: ‘I have nothing to say,’” and that those who do talk, even under pressure of legal punishment, must be cast out of the movement forever.

Further, Metzger advocates against formal affiliation with any group, referring to their membership cards as “a security blanket.” With all of these strategies in play, it becomes nearly impossible to say that arrested Lone Wolves are operating with any sort of plan beyond that for which they are being charged.

The danger of chalking attacks up to ignorance and insanity

It is tempting to write off Lone Wolves as ignorant or insane. Whether they are bombing abortion clinics and federal buildings or opening fire in Sikh temples and Jewish Community Centers, it is perhaps comforting to think that their lack of affiliation means that they have no fellow compatriots. However, this is a dangerous false hope.

These white spree killers have as coherent an ideology as someone who faithfully pulls the lever for Democrats at every election. Hardened by nationalist hate, abetted by social indifference, Lone Wolves see themselves locked in a Racial Holy War to defend a dying white race.

What ordinary Americans see as a progressive society embracing democratic values, Roof and his confederates see a war on whites through unflattering historical narratives, birth control, affirmative action, and race mixing. In this view, a Jewish community center or Sikh temple is no less a node of political power than a federal government building or the church of a Black state senator.

Mike Isaacson is an antifascist activist and scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York. He has a Master’s degree in economics from Howard University and teaches at Long Island University. In his free time, he maintains the economics and culture blog Vulgar Economics.