Chris Harper Mercer shot 16 people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, killing nine and injuring seven more.
The Washington Post described Mercer as “a loner with a grudge against religion.” Yet, although the media may portray him as an alienated lone wolf, he is much more than this.
Like Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, Chris Harper Mercer was a right-wing fanatic, a white supremacist who hated the government and religion.
On his online dating profile, Mercer said his political views were “conservative, republican” and his personality was “conservative.”
Those who knew the Oregon gunman described him “as a ‘hate-filled’ individual, with anti-religion and white supremacist leanings.” The Los Angeles Times reports he was “obsessed with guns, held anti-religion views, and liked to discuss military history.”
Although he wrote on his online dating profile “I don’t like religion but I’m spiritual,” Mercer also was an anti-religious fanatic. Survivors of the attack say he asked victims if they were Christians. Those who said they were, he shot in the head.
Mercer also left behind a “hate-filled note,” which has not yet been released to the public.
A public records search found that Mercer had registered the email address email@example.com. He also used the username ironcross45 on other web accounts. The iron cross was a symbol used by the Nazis; today it is a common symbol among neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. 45 is of course likely a reference to 1945, the end of World War II.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the leading monitor of hate groups in the US, said the mass shooting “has the earmarks of a classic hate crime.” Mercer “appears to have flirted with the hate movement,” the SPLC writes, indicating he bought a replica of an SS officer’s cap. Mercer paid $140 for the Nazi hat, remarking the “attention to detail is awesome.”
The New York Post referred to Mercer as a “Nazi,” saying he “idolized the Nazis.” Neighbors say Mercer’s head was shaved and that he regularly wore military-style green pants with black boots—a common style among neo-Nazis.
In a blog post, Mercer blamed the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement for the killing of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. “With the constant chants of anti police rhetoric this was bound to happen,” he wrote. “I’m on the side of the officer, and generally don’t agree with the black lives matter [sic] protests” he added.
Mercer also appeared to be a fan of “conspiracy-themed documentaries including Lost Secrets of the Illuminati.”
In terms of mass shootings, Mercer’s far-right political tendencies are not anomalous. 21-year-old shooter Dylann Roof massacred nine people in an historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. Like Mercer, Roof left behind a hate-filled manifesto. In his racist manifesto, Roof—who wore a jacket on which patches of the white supremacist apartheid regimes of South African and Rhodesia were sewn—described white people as the superior race, and had individual sections in which he disparaged Black people, Latinos, and Jews.
Moreover, the SPLC found Roof was likely a regular commenter on a neo-Nazi website. The cover of Roof’s website was a frame from the film Romper Stomper, which is about neo-Nazi skinheads. A swastika can be seen on the lapel of the jacket of the skinhead in the photo. A photo on Roof’s website shows the young man on a beach; in the sand he drew white supremacist symbols and the number 1488. 1488 is a neo-Nazi symbol; 14 stands for the white supremacist “14 words” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”) and 88 is codeword for “Heil Hitler” (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet).
Mercer and Roof are not the only violent right-wing extremists—not by a long shot. The Las Vegas couple who went on a shooting rampage in June 2014 left behind a swastika and a “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag—a symbol associated with right-wing libertarians. Police said the shooters were affiliated with far-right “militia and white supremacists.”
A few months later, a right-wing extremist shot government buildings in downtown Austin, Texas before trying to burn down the Mexican Consulate. AP reported the man had “extremist right-wing views,” and a police investigation found he was linked to the white supremacist movement. The police chief said the shooter was a “homegrown, American extremist” and right-wing “terrorist.”
Gun control is an important issue. The US has seen an unprecedented wave of gun violence in recent years, and much of this is preventable. Investigators found 13 guns linked to Mercer, and he used four in the mass shooting; clearly gun control is an issue here.
But there is a large overarching problem; an emphasis solely on gun control misses the larger picture. Many mass shootings are carried out by right-wing extremists. Gun violence is indeed a large problem in the US, but it is only part of the problem. One of the most dangerous threats facing the US today is the rise of right-wing terrorism.
There are more right-wing extremist groups in the US today than there have ever been. The SPLC says the US has seen an “explosive growth” of far-right terrorism in the past few years. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of hate groups in the US increased by 167%.
The day before the Charleston massacre, the New York Times warned of “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat.” Researchers of extremism noted that “headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists.” Yet while the the US government has spent trillions of dollars fighting Islamic extremism, the larger, much more serious threat of right-wing terrorism is often ignored.
Mercer appeared to have few friends, and acquaintances said he also struggled with mental illness. But being lonely and mentally ill does not make you violent. In fact, scientific studies show the mentally ill are more likely to be victims then perpetrators of violence.
In a climate of increasing right-wing extremism in the US, however, lonely and mentally ill Americans may fall into these far-right communities. Unlike most other right-wing terrorists in the US, Mercer was of mixed race, despite his white supremacist tendencies. This shows how the complications, and dangers, of right-wing extremism. It is even attracting people of color.
A multiplicity of factors are certainly behind the Oregon shooting. To stop such attacks in the future, gun control is critically important, as are better access to mental health care, the creation of community resources for those suffering with loneliness and depression, and more. But increasing concern and vigilance about the growing threat of right-wing extremism is one of the most important steps of all—yet one that is often ignored.
The extreme-right is becoming increasingly organized in the US. Chris Harper Mercer, Dylann Roof, and more are not “lone wolves.”
As I wrote in the wake of the Charleston massacre, the “fact that Roof is part of a larger white supremacist movement, the fact that he was radicalized by an organization that has ties to the mainstream right-wing party and by myths that are propagated by popular conservative media, are largely ignored. Media may now recognize the crime, yet they continue to downplay its causes.”