To state the obvious, pipe bomb maker Cesar Sayoc and Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers were violent, paranoid, hate-filled dwellers in the pervasive discourse of such people: conspiracy theories.
The targets of their ire were different. Sayoc was a hardcore Trump acolyte who felt that oppositional Democrats were the scourge of America, while Bowers appears to have disdained Trump for not doing enough to cleanse America’s REAL scourge – the Jews.
But both wanted their foes disposed of in the same way – a violent purging that spared no one they felt was not sufficiently on their side.
It’s a race war fought on obscure message boards and Fox News alike, pumping out anti-Semitic and violent conspiracy theories to broken minds who have no ability to discern fact from fiction.
These are self-proclaimed patriots who see themselves as the vanguard of a new digital war, where hearts and minds are won with memes, anonymous legions of soldiers fight by “digging” into people’s pasts, and anyone not sufficiently with them must be destroyed.
But when their memes and social media bitching didn’t get the job done, Sayoc and Bowers resorted to what paranoid killers have always resorted to when words aren’t cleansing the filth fast enough – bombs and bullets.
Their actions aren’t random. Their motives aren’t mysterious.
And they aren’t alone.
I’ve written again and again that the right wing fringe movement in general, and the putrescent fringe conspiracy QAnon in particular, are not a harmless digital gathering of cranks to be ignored, but a dangerous and violent subculture dedicated to wiping out vast swaths of Americans deemed to be the enemy.
In Sayoc and Bowers we have two examples of people who took the conspiracy theories they believed in and twisted them into motivations to act.
These people must be taken seriously. Not because their ideas have merit, but because they’re convinced that they do.
Sayoc believed in almost every right wing conspiracy theory of the last two decades, from chemtrails to George Soros’ world domination to Barack Obama having faked his citizenship.
This used to be fringe nuttery, the domain of lunatics pushing shopping carts full of pamphlets about how fluoride was invented by the Nazis to make us stupid.
But in 2018, conspiracy theories are the pillars of right wing discourse. You’re just as likely to see Sean Hannity blabbering about Soros as you are Alex Jones – to millions of people every day, who have lost their ability to discern fact from fantasy.
Sayoc was also a believer in QAnon precursor pizzagate, and while he doesn’t appear to have been a Q follower, his desire to purge America of its enemies through a random bombing campaign dovetails completely with Q’s vision of a fascist cleansing of the “deep state.” It’s a difference without a distinction.
QAnon believers insist their movement is a patriotic, peaceful research initiative, when it’s actually a blood-soaked fascist fantasy revolving around the extrajudicial trial and execution of high-ranking government figures – punctuated by constant references to “booms” and “carpet bombing” and the “Mother of All Bombs.”
Unsurprisingly, both Q and pizzagate have gotten mainstream conservative traction – evidence be damned.
Bowers is a tougher nut to crack, but it’s inarguable that he lives in the same toxic soup as Sayoc. Conspiracy theories, memes, racist vitriol – all powered by social media and conservative blather.
An avowed anti-Semite, Bowers took to the alt-right dumping ground Gab, where he seemed to have a bit of a following, declared “screw your optics, I’m going in,” and stormed a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
He then shot and killed 11 people during a bris before being captured.
The inciting incident for Bowers’ killing spree appears to be the migrant caravan headed north toward the US/Mexico border. Conspiracy believers tend to hyper-focus on particular aspects of things they feel “don’t make sense,”and Bowers fixated on an image of a Star of David on a truck somewhere in Central America, which appeared to be carrying migrants.
And again, this is not fringe nonsense spewed on barely-functioning blogs. The world domination plot of George Soros is a talking point as common to modern Republicans as a balanced budget amendment was to Republicans of the 1980s.
Fox Business host and slavish Trump acolyte Lou Dobbs was giving a national platform to the conspiracy theory that George Soros was behind the migrant caravan two days before the Pittsburgh massacre, on a segment that someone at Fox thought was perfectly appropriate to rerun hours after the killing.
The toxic soup of conspiracy theories, fringe plots, racial hatred, fascist fantasies, and paranoia that’s spread on Gab, Voat, 8chan and the worst parts of Twitter and Reddit isn’t going to go away if we just ignore it.
It’s going to exist whether we give it oxygen with our writing or not. It sustains itself.
Pretending it’s just a few attention-seeking kooks isn’t an option anymore. They’ve started killing and trying to kill with impunity. And they’re everywhere, from trash social media sites you’ve never heard of to the very upper reaches of power.
They used to think the government was coming for them in a black helicopter. Now they think government is their savior, thanks to Donald Trump.
Trump didn’t create this toxic movement – but he does mine it for votes. And places like Infowars, Gab, and 8chan didn’t make it either – but they profit from it handsomely.
What created it is age-old hatred and paranoia meeting new technologies that give every dangerous crank a megaphone with an unlimited audience.
It feeds on its own persecution complex. And its potential for violence is almost limitless.
How many more Cesar Sayocs are getting ready to blow their enemies to shreds because the “great awakening” hasn’t happened yet?
How many more Robert Bowers are locking and loading for the coming race war that all of their social feeds are telling them is imminent?
We won’t know until they’ve already acted.
And when they do, we’ll all wish we’d taken their hateful filth more seriously.