Is it possible to deduce meaning from nihilistic behavior? That’s one of the questions fueling the postmortem of Saturday’s mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. A manifesto purporting to outline the motives of the killer, Patrick Crusius, details a wealth of racist and xenophobic views aimed at Hispanics. The document’s author claims to “support” the murderer of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, who also wrote a manifesto published online. Both reference the “great replacement,” a white-nationalist conspiracy theory. It argues that traitorous “elites” are replacing white people in European and other majority-white nations with nonwhite immigrants. The broad applicability of this thesis has made it seductive for racists globally — it can be deployed to oppose Mexican and Central American migration into the United States as well as North African and Middle Eastern migration into Europe. In Crusius’s case, it seems to have been the rationale for driving ten hours and 650 miles from Allen, Texas, to unleash hell on a Walmart in El Paso, which boasts the largest Hispanic population share of any big city in the state.
Crusius’s motive seems clear and aligns neatly with its execution. But warnings have materialized since that suggest looking for meaning in the manifesto is folly. The online forum 8chan — which hosted both the Christchurch killer’s and Crusius’s alleged missives — has been written about extensively as an insular network fueled by in-jokes and obscure references aimed at an audience of fellow 8chan users. As such, the argument goes, attempts by journalists to extract a coherent political ideology from such documents are playing the killers’ game: incorrectly ascribing motives for their behavior to high-profile social or political entities, thus generating arguments and finger-pointing, and maximizing exposure for the perpetrators. “The first mistake people are making is to assume the creep meant anything he said in his manifesto,” tweeted Epoch Times columnist Brian Cates, in a series of posts to this effect amplified by conservative activist Candace Owens. “Part of the ‘fun’” for the Christchurch killer and his copycats, a group that Cates suggests includes Crusius, was “that they knew the authorities were going to treat his contradictory, absurd manifesto as if it were ‘real.’” Our new reality, Cates added, is “[mass] shootings done for ‘fun’ as the ultimate troll where these shitposters write confusing manifestos and then sit back [and] watch the fun as both sides claim he belongs to the other.”
There are some merits to this argument, though its sources should be viewed with skepticism — the Epoch Times was founded by adherents of a conspiratorial Chinese religious sect, Falun Gong, and has been criticized for its favorable coverage of far-right leaders in Europe and the U.S.; Owens, for her part, was cited by name in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto and so has reason to cast such documents as less meaningful than they might be. Even so, it echoes concerns expressed by scholars and journalists covering online culture about the manipulative insincerity of such documents — the notion that they don’t actually mean what they claim to, and are mostly there to generate attention. Both manifestos contain enough disjointed meme references or glib allusions to video games to suggest their authors knew that people would witness their atrocities and seek answers wherever they could find them. That the ensuing goose chase would end nowhere is the point. Killers are capitalizing on cultural fault lines — like racism and political partisanship — to initiate prolonged efforts to decipher actions that are, at their core, rooted in little more than a pathological desire for attention.
It’s an interesting conclusion, insofar as it further illuminates the expanding uses of the internet. But the dynamic it describes is not especially new. Whether Crusius believed in the great replacement and felt it justified the mass murder of Hispanics is immaterial to the reality that he murdered 32 people in a matter of minutes — the vast majority of them Hispanic, including at least seven Mexican nationals — and attributed his actions to the great replacement. Racism has always been a vehicle, among other functions. It’s an ideology to which countless seemingly unrelated desires and anxieties can be hitched. In the U.S., it has long been an expression of the power derivable from the fiction of race — a power that includes that over life and death, which Crusius was exercising when he opened fire in El Paso. The personal motivations of its practitioners, witting or unwitting, have ranged from the economic to the religious to the legal to the political and beyond. They include slavers and presidents and 8chan trolls alike. If Saturday was a bid for attention on Crusius’s part, it was mostly remarkable in that the platform used to rationalize it is new, and thus lends itself to the perception that the true motives of its denizens are elusive.
With Crusius, though, they’re fairly clear in practice: to kill Hispanic people and to be known for doing so. The depth of his belief in the white-supremacist conspiracy theory cited in the manifesto is hardly a necessary topic for investigation. Few puzzle over the sincerity of any individual lynch-mob participant’s hatred for black people in 1877. To be sure, there is wisdom in the warnings of those who study the online subculture in which such killers are forged — those who say that republishing the manifesto, or quoting it at length, is as likely to inspire copycats as to illuminate its psychological underpinnings, or that to engage with it in depth is to be misled willingly and better serves its author’s desire for notoriety than a broader understanding of their behavior. But that doesn’t mean we can’t trust our eyes. The 22 dead in Texas tells us most of what we need to know. If the manifesto’s author misled readers about the true motive behind the El Paso attack, they clarified another point: that it’s still possible to know what lies beneath. Racism doesn’t require sincerity to be real, or deadly.