Yesterday, I woke up to find that my Twitter feed had been inundated with anti-Semitic threats. People using anonymous handles referencing 20th century as well as contemporary neo-Nazi culture flooded my mentions. They let me know that I was being explicitly targeted because I was a Jew. They let me know that I was being explicitly targeted because I spoke out against white supremacist hate speech. Which is all to say, they let me know I was being targeted because I was willing to defend myself and and to mobilize others that were willing to do the same.
I’m going to include the most upsetting of the comments as an image below this sentence. I am warning you ahead of time about anti-semitic hate speech being included in this post.
The Nazis in my mentions couldn’t have made my point better for me.
On its face, the Nazi’s comment isn’t an explicit death threat. He never actively says “I will murder you, you k*** f*****.” But he doesn’t have to.
People implicitly understand that words have meanings other than their dictionary definitions. People can use words in ways that are symbolic. That’s how poetry/literary fiction works. We’re intentionally using a specific set of words as an abstraction for something else. This method is not only useful for a noble purpose like literature. It can also be used as a code language so that a person can say a certain set of words but people with a certain knowledge set will know that those words have an extra, more true meaning.
That is what that specific Nazi in my Twitter mentions was doing. “A free train ride” isn’t any sort of threat on its own if you know nothing about the history of the Holocaust. But if you do know the history of the Holocaust, you know that Nazis shipped Jews on cattle car trains to concentration camps where millions of them were gassed to death, incinerated alive, and worked to starvation and ultimately death. The implication of this Nazi’s tweet is that I am absolutely correct in knowing what Nazis plan to do to me. They will murder me and people like me by the millions if they’re given the power to do so.
It’s a death threat. Let’s not beat around the bush. A Nazi threatened to kill me and people like me. The threat hinges on “when I have the means to do so” but it still remains a direct threat against my well-being. They simply use the anonymity provided by the internet as a legal safeguard against direct retaliation. Nazis already have the means and have also already shown the willingness to engage in political violence on a micro-scale.
Political violence committed by white nationalist/white supremacist zealots are on the rise in North America. Dylann Roof killed nine black people in a black church of historical significance in South Carolina two years ago. Alexandre Bissonnette killed six Muslims in a mosque in Quebec. In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed seven people, including himself, in Santa Barbara, California.
What is the tie that binds these shooters together? They aren’t “lone wolfs” as the media suggests. That’s a blatant misunderstanding of how radicalized political terrorism works today. They were indoctrinated by an internet culture and (in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette who is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and French fascist Marine Le PEn) surging political movements that said anyone that isn’t a cisgender heterosexual Christian white man is a direct threat. They internalized the ideology of patriarchal white supremacy/white nationalism so thoroughly that they took it to its logical conclusion: murder of all perceived enemies.
This fact is why I get so upset when people try to tell me that the Nazis who stormed my Twitter mentions are just trolls (and this isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with highly coordinated harassment and death threats because of my writing/political beliefs/personal identity). They aren’t trolls. They’re letting me know that I’ve been marked. And that if they choose to execute their power, they will feel justified in destroying my personal life at their most benevolent (a tactic that these domestic terrorists used to horrifying effect during the GamerGate crisis) or they will feel justified in killing me. They have members who are willing to escalate things to either of those levels.
If someone anonymously threatened to kill you if you didn’t pay them a certain amount of money but they refused to commit to precisely when or how they planned on doing it, we would all intrinsically understand that we would report this incident to the authorities and the authorities would prosecute those individuals for death threats which are illegal in this country. Death threats are illegal because we understand intrinsically that once someone makes a death threat, they are committing themselves to the potentiality of that action and the greatest social good is achieved by using the state to keep them from doing it.
Fascism is itself an ideology of death. Its core tenet is that society will be improved by forceful expulsion (either through violent relocation or mass murder; and you need only look at the history of the Holocaust to understand that the fascists inevitably settle on the latter) of anyone who doesn’t pass their racial and ideological purity tests. The threat of death and violence is inherent in every single thing that they say. And although they, historically, haven’t had the political mobilization since the end of the second world war to enact their policies at any national scale, American history has shown plenty of incidences from the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s to the resurgent and rampant arson committed against southern black churches for the last several years to the record number of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the weeks since Trump’s inauguration that there are individuals and groups in the movements of white nationalism and white supremacy who are willing to back up their ideology with action.
The consequences for that action is death and terror.
If we know we would encourage the state to condemn and stop someone who threatened to kill you if you didn’t pay them money but they aren’t going to tell you precisely when and how they plan to kill you, why are so many liberals appalled when leftists ask for a state that is actively willing to condemn and stop groups whose very ideology is a death threat to millions? Dylann Roof and Alexandre Bissonnette and Elliot Rodger were part of political movements and violent, radical cultures that openly stated what their ideologies inherently believe has to be done. And then they did it.
Is a state, that says public affirmation of and recruitment/organization towards an ideology that calls for the death of millions based on their race is an ideology that the state has a pressing interest to stop, engaging in “thought crime” as so many liberals are fond of saying? Or, instead, is it recognizing the truth that these fascists’ words aren’t meaningless polemics being spouted into the ether where they will have no consequences, but, rather, that these words have consequences into the material and physical well-being of innocent people? Is it a recognition that it isn’t speech in the sense of John Stuart Mill’s “market place of ideals” that is being curtailed but, instead, an active defense against individuals who are making it clear that they mean to kill you if you roll over and let them?
I understand (and deeply respect) liberal fears that any abridgment of “speech” and “assembly” is unconscionable. That in doing so you become as monstrous and restrictive as the people you’re claiming to fight. I’m a queer nonbinary Jew. I understand perfectly well what happens when the state begins to decide what people do and don’t have rights. Gay people have only had a national constitutional protection for homosexual sex for less than fourteen years. Until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, there were a significant number of states where you could go to jail for having gay sex. Fears of a state that is too intrusive into the personal sphere are entirely justified.
But asking for a state that is willing to actively combat and subvert fascism by making public displays of its values illegal is not the same thing. There is no social utility to racial/misogynistic/queerphobic bigotry. There is a clear social utility to protecting people of color, women, and the queer community from a group of people who have made it clear that they want to kill them and that they have been killing them when they’ve found the opportunity to do so. That is asking for a state that is interested in protecting the physical security of its people against an explicit threat.
And, in a perfect world, the state would have a monopoly on this sort of anti-fascist/anti-white nationalist/anti-white supremacist force. A just state should have a monopoly on any force that isn’t immediate, personal self-defense. But the chief strategist of the President of the United States is Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon ran Breitbart News, a white supremacist/white nationalist propaganda site. Our president has taken white supremacist/white nationalist hate groups off of domestic terror watch lists. White supremacist/white nationalist groups feel so emboldened by this move that they are talking to the press and claiming that the president is giving them free reign to commit whatever acts they desire.
If you still feel so safe in the current system that these facts don’t make you immediately concerned for your material and physical well-being, that’s because you will never be the victim of fascist/white nationalist/white supremacist violence. If you can’t understand why someone would consider all fascists/white nationalists/white supremacists a direct threat to their livelihoods and lives, that is because you will never be the victim of fascist/white nationalist/white supremacist violence. If you will never be the victim of fascist/white nationalist/white supremacist violence, maybe you should reflect on what it feels like right now to be one of those people who currently are victims of fascist/white nationalist/ white supremacist violence and why they feel increasingly justified in taking their defense into their own hands.
I’m a moral consequentialist. I believe that you must consider the broader and long-term consequences of your actions before acting. And, because I’m a moral consequentialist, I believe that any decision to use physical force for resistance and self-defense must be made with as much tactical precision as possible. And, occasionally, resistance will make bad tactical decisions because emotions held sway over reason.
But if you are a person who is criticizing antifa protestors at UC Berkeley for engaging in the small-scale resistive physical force to keep Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking — a white nationalist speaker who outs trans students and outs undocumented students which can have lethal consequences for the lives of those people — think about how scared marginalized folks and folks on the left have to feel right now if they are willing to take things to that level? I promise you that they aren’t making these decisions lightly. And think about how your criticisms come from that place of privilege where you will not be drawn into the web of destruction and violence that these folks have to be on guard to defend themselves against every second of every day.
I value non-violence above almost all else. I don’t believe in capital punishment. Creating a rational environment where ideas can be explained and dissected and creating a populace capable of engaging with ideas critically is everything I think society should be moving towards. I think any war that isn’t self-defense is inherently unjust. But I believe that mistaking fascism/white nationalism/white supremacy for ideas that, in the society we currently inhabit, can be reasoned away and that their existence doesn’t represent a fundamental threat to millions of people is willful naivete.
We can either have a system where our government takes protecting its people seriously and fights these cancerous systems of oppression with everything it has, or we can have a system where people take it upon themselves to do it because the former system supports oppression.
The latter is the world we live in.