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Nancy Lanza was a survivalist who stockpiled food and semi-automatic weapons. She believed that an economic collapse was imminent and prepared to defend herself from the resulting social chaos. Nancy included her son Adam in these activities, taking him to shooting ranges for target practice. I suspect that if she were a Salafist Muslim rather than a survivalist, we would have read it in the headlines by now. Instead, the media has all but ignored Nancy Lanza’s ideological views in their coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting. Survivalism is an unremarkable detail in the life of a “gun enthusiast”, a lifestyle explained and normalized by “gun culture”.
The US has 300 million personal firearms. No nation has more guns per capita and no wealthy nation does less to regulate them. People here don’t just have guns – we love guns and love to shoot guns. We love guns so much that within hours of 20 children being murdered, many of us seemed primarily concerned with protecting gun rights. While we often use the term “gun culture” to explain these phenomena, we are rarely able to deconstruct this term. Michael Moore, for example, had to shrug his shoulders in “Bowling for Columbine” and call gun culture a mysterious case of American exceptionalism.
America Was Built on White Paramilitary Violence
But what exactly is exceptional about the United States? As with other imperial powers, tremendous state violence was necessary to occupy a territory, suppress its indigenous population, enslave millions of Africans, and assault striking workers. But the United States is unique in the extent to which we’ve relied on paramilitary forces – groups going by the names of militias, slave patrols, lynch mobs, and posses – to impose racial and economic domination through terrorism. These paramilitaries were usually not professional forces. Instead, their members were ordinary white folks: Landowners, slaveholders, and businessmen took part, but so did poor farmers and those in the working class. Participation in these groups was instrumental in creating a common white identity that crossed class lines. Paramilitarism bestowed privilege upon many whites who were otherwise indebted to and exploited by the upper classes. It created a culture of popular violence linked inextricably to race.
The constitutional right to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment, came about because Virginia’s statesmen wanted assurances that the new federal government wouldn’t dismantle their slave patrols. By the time its constitutional convention met in 1788, Virginia had seen its share of slave uprisings. In 1739, at least 60 slaves set fire to plantations, killed 20 whites, and tried to liberate more slaves who could join them. A well-armed group of plantation owners crushed the rebellion on its second day, executing most of the rebels and deporting some to the West Indies. Virginia strengthened its slave patrols in response and made participation mandatory for white men of all economic classes. Historian Charles T. Bogus, among others, has documented how local control of these militia groups was a precondition for Virginia to ratify the US Constitution.
Slave rebellions were fairly common. There were at least 250 conspiracies or uprisings involving more than ten slaves throughout US history. Whites in the South were, in general, terrified of slaves’ potential power, especially given that slaves outnumbered whites by large margins in much of the region. White fear meant that wherever there were slaves, there was a patrol ready to shoot should anyone get out of line. In the US South, slave patrols predated police forces and in fact evolved into the police.
Following the Civil War and formal abolition of slavery, whites formed paramilitary organizations to continue their domination of blacks. These groups – the Redshirts, White League, and Ku Klux Klan – were a natural continuation of slave patrols. The Klan was the most successful, claiming as many as 5 million members at its peak in the 1920s. Klan members enjoyed close ties to local and state governments in the South through alliances with police, sheriffs, and Democratic politicians. The group’s favored method of terrorism against black people was the lynching, usually under the pretext of “delivering justice” for crimes like rape, murder, or hitting on white women. White vigilantes hanged nearly 5,000 blacks between 1882 and 1968. They deliberately performed lynching as a spectacle to provide entertainment for other whites. As historian Phillip Dray describes:
“Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic.”
The western US had its own forms of paramilitarism, which were no less violent or pervasive. During the 19th and 20th centuries, white mobs attacked Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants as well as the Irish and Slavs who were not yet considered white. Many of these attacks were against striking workers. In 1917, for example, Mexican mine workers went on strike in Bisbee, Arizona. To break the strike, the local sheriff gathered a posse of 2,200 white civilians who rounded up 1,300 Mexican workers and forced them into train cars at gunpoint. They were illegally deported as the train headed to Mexico. In a notorious episode of anti-Asian violence that took place in 1871, 500 white vigilantes attacked and robbed nearly every Chinese resident living on Calle de los Negros – killing at least 18 of them – in retaliation for the death of a white rancher inadvertently killed by a Chinese man’s bullet.
Mike Davis, who has thoroughly documented white paramilitary terrorism in the American West, has this to say about its class character:
Victorian vigilantes (with the notable exceptions of the two San Francisco vigilance movements of the 1850s) tended to be workers, petty entrepreneurs, and small farmers fighting in the name of Jacksonian values to preserve a monopoly of ‘white labor’ against what they construed as elite conspiracies to flood the state with ‘coolies’ and ‘aliens.’ From the turn of the century, however, such plebian nativism, although still present, yielded to anti-Asian and antiradical outbursts now led by wealthier farmers, middle-class professionals and local business elites, who were as likely to be California Progressives as old-guard Republicans.
Military and police forces rely upon professional killers who are a degree removed from society. American paramilitarism, however, is violence “by and for the people”. It has shaped white culture and, in a way, is white culture. Paramilitary terrorism was not carried out at random – it was typically a response to a perceived transgression of written or unwritten laws by a person of color. Because the violence came from ordinary white folks who often held anti-elite views (though they ultimately supported existing racial and economic hierarchies), vigilantism took on a populist character. For its beneficiaries, vigilantism has become inseparable from notions of justice and democracy. Our paramilitary history has shaped America’s legal institutions and culture in such a way that people fetishize gun violence, can easily obtain guns, and are all too inclined to pull the trigger. It is no coincidence that the US and Israel, two societies built and sustained by the violence of their settlers, suffer the highest rates of gun-related homicides among the 47 nations the UN considers “highly developed”.
Paramilitary Fantasies in the Twenty-First Century
The Civil Rights movement weakened the political power of white vigilantism. Although paramilitary organizations like the Patriot movement’s militias and the Minutemen border patrols exist, their members tend to shy away from explicitly racist language and distance themselves when their more radical members perpetrate acts of terror.
Though paramilitarism has declined from earlier eras, its cultural legacy is still with us. The rate of gun ownership has dropped since the 1970s, but the number of guns each owner possesses has increased dramatically. Gun owners are more likely than ever to have assault weapons and to have many of them. They buy guns en masse in response to distinct events like Y2K, the 9/11 attacks, and the election of a black president. These firearm ownership patterns tell the story of a significant minority ofwhite rural and suburban Americans who are living out paramilitarist fantasies. A small fraction involve themselves in militia groups or armed neighbor watches (think George Zimmerman), but most are not organized in any meaningful sense. More often, their politics are expressed only through their lifestyle (one could say the same for much of the contemporary Left).
Nancy Lanza was a survivalist engaging in such a lifestyle. Survivalists (or “preppers”) fear the erosion of white privilege caused by a perceived loss of national sovereignty, increased immigration, and the specter of a social collapse that would prevent the state from subduing black or brown people. Survivalist novels are filled with fantasies of whites fighting off Chicano nationalists led by the “King of Aztlan”. Some preppers believe in conspiracy theories like the North American Union, a supposed merger of the US with Canada and Mexico. One man, featured in the show “Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic channel, simply believes that “after an economic collapse, rioting will spread from urban centers in waves.”
Within hours of the Sandy Hook shooting, the media attributed Adam Lanza’s actions to personal mental health issues rather than the violence of white male culture. James Utt, writing on the Aurora shootings earlier in the year, wrote:
[W]hen Nidal Hassan opened fire at Ford Hood in 2009, the media and politicians were taking Muslim Americans (particularly Muslim members of the armed services) to task, questioning their loyalties, questioning if they were part of an “inherently violent” culture, questioning every aspect of their identity. The same sort of questions were asked when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, only directed at Asian American Immigrants… Why is no one asking what’s wrong with White Men in the United States?
Similarly, when discussing Nancy Lanza and other white vigilantes, white liberals like to use the term “gun nut”. This term also individualizes the fetishization of gun violence, defining it with a quasi-medical term: Only a person who is a “nut” with mental issues could love assault weapons. The gun nut frame allows white liberals to distance themselves from paramilitarism without critiquing whiteness or the violence of the state. What they don’t understand, however, is that racist state violence and vigilante terrorism go hand-in-hand.
Exactly 150 years ago, Union soldiers killed 38 Dakota Indian rebels under the direct order of President Lincoln. It was the largest execution in US history. Before the army hanged the men, it was very clear that a mob of white settlers were going kill the Dakota themselves. The state co-opted the mob’s violence and replaced it with its own violence. This is a pattern repeated throughout our history. In the post-Civil Rights era, vigilantes play less of a role in controlling people of color, but the state – through more intensive policing and mass incarceration – plays a greater role. The Klan may not be lynching people daily, but the state incarcerates more black men now than were slaves in 1850. The people of Brisbee, Arizona may not be forcibly deporting Mexicans, but ICE conducts the equivalent of nearly one Brisbee Deportation a day. State violence continues to produce whiteness and white privilege. We, as its beneficiaries, are all co-conspirators as long as we stand by and watch it happen.
Justin Feldman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.