The Radicalizing Language of Fear and Threat

“If I won’t defend my race, how can I expect others to do the same?”

A few hours after posting those words online, a 19 year old son of a family of civic-minded teachers and lifeguards1 carried an assault rifle into a synagogue in Poway, California and started shooting at worshipers. His language is stunningly similar to the words with which other white supremacists have recently justified their own massacres. They all expressed an urgent need to defend themselves and other white people against what they saw as a threat to annihilate them. While it’s impossible to know their true thoughts and emotions, their language is laced with fear, not hate. These killers produce Dangerous Speech to achieve a shared goal greater and perhaps more frightening than committing a single, isolated act of violence: they want to instill fear of non-whites in others, to bring about more mass killings.

Governments, internet companies, and civil society organizations attempting to prevent the spread of violent white supremacist ideas – and killings – must consider the radicalizing capacity of fear and threat, instead of focusing exclusively on hate speech.

Throughout the 4,200 word ‘manifesto’ that he posted before the attack, the Poway killer repeatedly accuses Jews – all of them – of orchestrating a genocide against whites, and he describes his vile actions as virtuous and necessary, as a form of self-defense against the ‘extinction’ of his people and way of life. This combination of an ethno-nationalist worldview and a fear of being invaded or wiped out as a group is common among white supremacists. Indeed it is an example of a classic hallmark of Dangerous Speech known as ‘accusation in a mirror’ – in which a speaker convinces a group of people to commit or condone mass violence by “asserting that the audience faces serious and often mortal threats from the target group – in other words, reversing reality by suggesting that the victims of a genocide will instead commit it.”

Self-defense is so widely understood as a justification for killing that it is an ironclad defense to homicide in myriad bodies of law. Killers who claim to be acting in self-defense can inspire more violence all too easily if each of their attacks increases the feeling for some that if they don’t make a similar ‘sacrifice’, their group will be eliminated. Among mass killers who have recently published long online screeds describing their ideas and motivations, the Poway shooter is the only one who explicitly stated in his manifesto that the number of people he kills is secondary to the goal of sparking a ‘revolution.’ Other shooters very likely shared this goal, though – and in any case achieved it.

The degree to which these attacks inspire each other is also evident in the strikingly similar language the attackers use to describe their fears. For example, prior to attacking and killing worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, the shooter posted online:

“HIAS [a Jewish non-profit that provides aid to refugees] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Describing people who influenced his own actions, the Poway shooter cited the Pittsburgh shooting and the recent attack on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people. He said that these attacks convinced him both that violence was necessary and that he was capable of committing it himself, even if meant sacrificing the comfortable life he otherwise looked forward to. Similarly, the terrorist who committed the attack in New Zealand cited past far-right mass killers Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof among his inspirations. Roof also wrote a ‘manifesto’ before he attacked an African-American church in 2015, and in it he expresses a sense of urgency and self-sacrifice. Saying:

“I have no choice. […] Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me. […] I am in a great hurry.”

An important belief that is also common to all these killers is that the invasion they fear would not be not a sudden military invasion – they imagine a gradual replacement of whites via immigration. The Poway shooter’s manifesto compares this to slowly boiling a frog to death. Central to the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto is the idea that the invasion is taking place via high birth rates among immigrants and low birth rates among whites. The document – titled The Great Replacement – opens with:

“It’s the birth rates.
It’s the birth rates.
It’s the birth rates.”

He refers back to this point almost constantly in the following 73 pages. The fear of replacement was also on the minds of the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 – during which one of them killed a counter-protester with his car. They chanted both “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

These fears are stoked by right-wing politicians and media figures who, while usually avoiding explicit calls for violence, use similar language when speaking about immigration. United States and European politicians, including President Trump, consistently frame immigration as an invasion and refer to asylum seekers as violent criminals and members of dangerous “caravans”. A central image of the Brexit campaign in 2016 (shown above) is of a long line of refugees waiting to enter the UK with the alarming message “Breaking Point” displayed over it. Other influential speakers, including Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, repeatedly cite low birth rates among Americans as a threat to the cultural identity of the country, often placing blame on working women.

When leaders relentlessly claim the country is being invaded by dangerous criminals and then fail to solve their fabricated crisis, it’s unsurprising that some of their followers are easily convinced by manifestos and frightening conspiracy theories that describe other groups of people as dangerous and threatening. Powerful and influential people say they are under attack, that their survival is at stake, and then some of them decide to take matters into their own hands – just after posting shocking words that echo the language of world leaders. These leaders are not directly responsible for the attacks, but they are responsible for crafting a politics of fear in which conspiracies and violence thrive.


  1. Many publishers have decided against naming the killers behind these attacks and writing about their beliefs, partially in order to prevent the spread of their ideas. In this blog post, I do not name the killers from the most recent attacks, but I do discuss their beliefs and even quote their writing. The audience of this website is much different from that of a major newspaper or cable TV station. We feel that our commentary on the killers’ beliefs is unlikely to reach an audience that could be susceptible to the ideas and hasn’t yet been exposed to them, and we hope that our reflections on the common threads that run through their language will add to the urgent effort to disrupt the spread of their ideas.

Cover photo by Government House, New Zealand CC BY-SA 4.0