Far-right extremists are taking advantage of COVID-19

On March 24, Timothy Wilson, a right-wing extremist, was killed in a shootout with the FBI just hours before he planned to attack a hospital in the Kansas City area treating coronavirus patients.

Days before, a FBI report revealed that some white nationalist groups had instructed their members, should they contract the disease, to cough on as many Jews as possible. And in Vancouver, a Jewish high school class being taught online was interrupted by an anti-Semitic extremist who shouted “sieg heil!” along with a host of rude and misogynistic comments.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, political leaders and security officials cannot turn a blind-eye to those who seek to take advantage of the crisis. Right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists are exploiting the current state of anxiety by scapegoating Jews, blacks, minority groups, politicians, and law enforcement agents. They are doing what they know best – spreading dangerous disinformation online that can (and already has) translated into acts of violence.

Some of this disinformation claims that COVID-19 was created in a lab and purposely released by nefarious political leaders, state powers, or greedy minority groups in order to profit and control populations around the world. In Canada, extremists are targeting Prime Minister Trudeau on chat groups, spreading rumours that he is purposely exploiting the crisis to impose a dictatorship.

Divisive rhetoric coming from the United States has only made matters worse. In late March, Trump began calling the coronavirus the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has acted similarly, calling it the “Wuhan virus”. In light of these comments – along with other polarizing narratives – it is no surprise that racist incidents towards Asian-Americans have increased at an alarming pace.

Right-wing terrorism is different from the religiously-motivated terrorism that our societies have paid more attention in the recent past. Right-wing attacks tend to be more sporadic and opportunistic in nature, and the perpetrators often do not have any organizational ties. Warnings of the “lone wolf” or the “self-radicalized” attacker hold some truth. These attacks are, in short, even harder to thwart.

Some might argue that social distancing and the contagion of COVID-19 may actually reduce the number of violent acts. After all, if everyone is at home, and stadiums are closed, and religious institutions boarded shut, who exactly is there to attack? Well, one report by the RCMP suggests that violent extremists may simply alter their targets, to now focus on hospitals and supermarkets.

And even with many off the streets, right-wing extremists will turn to other methods of spreading terror. Last week, in the span of 48 hours, two Huntsville Alabama synagogues were vandalized with several racial slurs and swastikas. Phrases graffitied on the walls included “Fuck Kikes,” “Gas Em All,” “White Power,” “Jew Scum” and the lightning-bolt “SS” symbol. A similar incident also occurred in Toronto over Passover, a Jewish holiday.

With a vaccine not expected to arrive for another 12-18 months, authorities need to devise a proactive, rather than responsive plan for protecting the most vulnerable in society. Ensuring that far-right web platforms are diligently monitored and that credible threats are rigorously investigated and prosecuted should be the top priority. It is essential for Canada to follow Germany’s model. We need to pursue far-right groups before they turn violent.

Political leaders and security officials also need to offer reassurances to marginalized community members that when society does reopen again – whenever that may be – acts of right-wing extremism will not become the norm. Bolstering public funding for specific projects aimed at countering violent radicalization and extremism, such as the Community Resiliency Fund, are important steps that cannot be ignored in the coming weeks.

Lastly, Canada needs to formulate a long-term plan to counter violent extremism in a post-pandemic world. Will COVID-19 lead to an increase in bioterrorism? Will the unprecedented economic measures enacted today affect how much we spend on defence and security tomorrow? Will prolonged months of isolation result in a proliferation of extremist recruitment over the Internet? All of these questions require serious thought. Anything less will be remembered as both an affront to those most affected and a grave mistake in failing to curtail the contagion of an ever-growing threat: right-wing extremism.

Kevin Budning is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His research focuses primarily on right-wing extremism in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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