Dying for the Cause? Not really. The Far-Right has its own take on “martyrdom”.
Suicide attacks are virtually absent in far-right terrorism. A recent study of the subcultural, strategic, and historic references to martyrdom, self-sacrifice, and suicide in the contemporary far right shows the potential reasons for this, highlighting the peculiar political mythology of “martyrdom” that characterizes this extremist environment.
Immediately after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was arrested for shooting 3 and killing 2 persons with an assault rifle during the August 25, 2020 Kenosha protests, a stunningly quick and widespread process of idolization and heroization within the far-right began to kick in. Many in fact addressed Rittenhouse, who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as a “true American hero”. Memes glorifying him, crowdfunding campaigns in his support or even cosplaying as Rittenhouse during far-right rallies are only few examples for the intense idolization surrounding him.
Similar forms of “lionization” are common in other, politically more extremist milieus, such as the white supremacist or neo-Nazi environment. It was the case with right-wing terrorists Anders Breivik (who killed 77 persons on July 22, 2011 in Oslo, Norway), Dylann Roof (who killed 9 persons on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, USA) or Brenton Tarrant (who killed 51 persons on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand). Breivik quickly became an inspiring hero among far-rightists, Roof and his bowl haircut were made the core symbol of militant neo-Nazi online groups (for example the so called “Bowl Patrol” or “Bowlwaffen Division”), and Tarrant is typically called a “saint” within the militant far-right online milieu, accompanied with picture montages placing his face into paintings of Christian martyrs and saints.
But all these cases have at least one element in common: All of the perpetrators actually survived the violent acts. None of them is actually a “martyr” in the true meaning of the term, as none of them die for the cause. More broadly, far-right terrorists have almost never used suicide tactics for their attacks, neither did they commit suicide afterwards to avoid arrest. In a recent study, I looked at the potential reasons for this, by assessing subcultural references, far-right strategic manuals, and the role model concept of Nazi martyrdom cult in the contemporary extreme right.
Celebrating the Warrior but Shunning Death
Of course, there are cases of far-right terrorists or murderers who commit suicide before arrest. Take the examples of white supremacist Wade Michael Page, who shot and killed 6 persons on August 5, 2012. After what came to be known as the Wisconsin Sikh Temple attack he turned the gun on himself. In a similar fashion, the German neo-Nazis Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos killed each other before they could be apprehended for a killing and bombing spree that lasted over a decade producing 10 victims. Even Dylann Roof reportedly attempted to commit suicide but failed. Yet, living to fight another day appears to be the main requisite for large-scale idolization in the extreme right.
As Cynthia Miller-Idriss has shown in her seminal work “The Extreme Gone Mainstream”, modern extreme right subculture includes abundant references to death. Typically, they come in three forms: (1) abstract death (e.g., the SS death head); (2) collective death (e.g., the death of a whole nation or ancestral group as existential threat to evoke violence for restauration or salvation from destruction); and (3) specific death (e.g., being political soldiers). A person sacrifices himself or herself to save the nation from destruction. Dying for one’s race, the nation, or as an honourable soldier in battle are omnipresent themes in extreme right music, clothing, literature, or other subcultural products. So why then, is right-wing terrorism and violence almost completely deprived of suicide tactics (in a narrow sense, whereby the death of the attacker is part of the attack design)?
One important explanation for suicide terrorism, the rational choice perspective, maintains that for such a tactic to appear in significant scale within a given extremist environment, there must be personal, social, and religious incentives. Of course, there is much more to it, but this is a good place to start. Even though the far-right is a diverse and heterogenous milieu, one can hardly find elaborate incentives in these categories. Religious support for suicide is not to be expected in the Christian fundamentalist parts. Much more present is the “fight till the end” notion praised among pagan far-rightists worshipping Norse gods and Viking warrior culture. The far-fight also has little to offer in terms of social or personal incentives. There is no known widespread practice of providing for families of those members who committed suicide, even during an act of violence against the enemy. Those who killed themselves during an attack are not even remotely celebrated as much in subculture (e.g. music, clothing etc.) as compared to those who survived. The contemporary far-right widely communicates to its members that death must be embraced as the consequence of fighting for the cause until the end, meaning until the “political soldier” is stigmatized, ostracized, and eventually killed by the enemy. Steadfastness in the face of a much superior opponent and surviving to continue the fight is typically seen as the highest virtue in this milieu. This appears to connect well to the role model of martyrdom in Nazi Germany, which also sacralised those Nazis who were killed during street fights with Communists (e.g., Horst Wessel): the “Blutzeugen” (blood witnesses).
Strategic manuals also rarely include references to suicide terrorism. One notable exception are the “Turner Diaries”, deemed “one of the most influential works of violent extremist propaganda in the English language”. Chapters XIV and XVI feature a planned suicide attack against a power plant involving radioactive material. In the end, the main protagonist is ordered to embark on a suicide mission at the climax of the book. He flies an agricultural aircraft equipped with a nuclear warhead into the Pentagon and destroys it. Other important manifestos or strategic manuals (e.g., Tarrant’s “The Great Replacement” or Breivik’s “2083 - A European Declaration of Independence”) are much more focused on the “political soldier” theme: finding honourable death in the battle to save the white race.
In short, within the contemporary extreme right, personal, social, and religious/ideological rewards are mostly structured to incentivize murder-suicides or “death by cop” in the most extreme form. “Martyr” status is usually reserved for those who remain ideologically committed in the face of persecution, imprisonment, or societal stigmatization.
Implications for Future Threats
Summing up this short overview of my recent study on modern far-right suicide, martyrdom, and self-sacrifice, it is fair to say that the extreme right environment is highly unlikely to produce significant suicide tactics in the narrow sense. This holds true even though some groups have openly flirted with admiration for jihadist martyrdom and suicide terrorism in general. Much more likely, and oftentimes no less harmful, are the attack tactics evolving around mass shooting murder-suicides, with a particular hypermasculine connotation, which open the threat spectrum for male lone actor attacks fuelled by the far-right’s glorification of the (male) “warrior hero” who goes down fighting till the end.
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