Wolves are not a particularly special species. They are not as threatening or as powerful as cougars. They are not as large as many other predators, nor as strong, nor terribly wise, nor do they have sophisticated tools or genetic dispositions that make them individually dangerous in the animal kingdom. Their ability to capture prey more worthy than themselves results from the collaboration of the pack.
Once the prey is targeted, the pack first disperses, then surrounds the victim – some wolves from the front, others from behind. The dreaded characteristic of the wolf pack is that it does not operate alone. The lone wolf, in the animal kingdom, is not powerful; it’s weak. The wolf, acting alone, is not something to be feared. Lone wolves don’t kill because they can’t.
Payton S. Gendron, 18, reportedly went hunting in a supermarket yesterday after driving more than 200 miles from home. Police said he was heavily armed, wearing military-style protective gear, and shot and killed at least 10 people, wounding three others. Almost all of the victims were black; the supermarket is in a predominantly black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. The event was, according to a manifesto apparently written by Gendron himself, a racist massacre. Almost immediately, it was described as a “racially motivated hate crime” by New York officials.
When we write, think about and pursue such hate crimes in this country, we tend to wonder if the perpetrator acted alone. In this affair, Gendron seems to have had no accomplice. He is a so-called solitary shooter, or, in the language of our time, a lone wolf– a term used to differentiate the massacre from more sophisticated acts of terrorism staged by groups like ISIS that typically involve multiple people and nuanced planning.
But this lone wolf language fails us at a time when hatred and radicalization now serve as a proxy for the collaborative herd, for co-conspirators and accomplices. Gendron was not alone. His mission was effective because he was supported by an apparatus that provided the ideology and the means for the hunt. According to the proof of a manifesto that he would have posted Thursday evening, Gendron did not perceive himself as being alone: he had his own; they were there for him.
As if to make that clear, he live-streamed some of his actions yesterday, a performative gesture for an audience that already existed. To emphasize that his victims were targeted and not at all random, Gendron wrote that he chose this specific Tops supermarket because it was in a demographic area that according to public data is only 1% white. And just so there’s no doubt, he wrote the word N on the tip of his gun, a word clearly visible on his videotape of the rampage.
Language alone cannot change the violent extremism that is part of American society today, which President Joe Biden last night called the “hate-fueled domestic terrorism” that is leading to such tragedy. Social media platforms should be held accountable and gun laws should be more restrictive, but bad language tends to excuse the herd. Biden understands that; with only a brief nod to the perpetrator – “We need to know more” – the thrust of his statement was a form of public shaming of the racist network who is guilty, even if not legally responsible . As lawyers are tied down with specific charges regarding hate crimes and the meaning of terrorism, Biden is rightly using terrorism in its least legal sense: black people were being hunted down by a white racist. Terror.
The manifesto is an ode to a particular variant of hate – espoused by political leaders and media conservatives – called the “great replacement” theory. Drawn from the fear of European extremists towards Muslim immigrants, the American variant was born of undeniable demographic changes. The year Donald Trump was elected president, 2016, was also the first year the US Census Bureau reported that more non-white babies were born in America than white babies. The country will not return to a white majority.
Basically, the idea of a “great replacement” is violence, because the notion of displacement justifies the elimination of the parties responsible for taking your place. Their very presence – not their ideas, politics or voting habits – is the threat. The political and media leaders who spread these ideas can play coy, a notion I’ve described as stochastic terrorism, by having plausible deniability of what they are actually promoting. Their language may be vague as to the place and time of the kill, but it is not misleading. It is terror, carried out by the herd.
The manifesto itself will be scanned for evidence of what motivated Gendron. I myself appear in the manifesto, in an image of CNN hosts and analysts labeled as Jewish. But Gendron’s hatred isn’t specific to me, just as we’re unlikely to find anything particularly interesting in him. We are likely to find that he, in fact, is not that special. He’s just part of a pack.