Seventeen people were killed and at least 15 other people were wounded on February 14 at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, in one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.
More evidence has emerged showing that the gunman, a 19-year-old former student named Nikolas Cruz, shared a common trait with many other men who have carried out mass shootings: He had a record of abusing and threatening women. On February 15, a white nationalist hate group called the Republic of Florida Militia also claimed the gunman was a member who had trained with the militia, but the group’s leader later walked back the claim. Former classmates of Cruz did describe him as politically extreme and espousing racist beliefs.
To discuss these issues, Democracy Now! spoke with George Ciccariello-Maher, a visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute at New York University and the author of Decolonizing Dialectics, and Trevor Aaronson, executive director and co-founder of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer to The Intercept. The full transcipt is below the video.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, the FBI confirmed it had received a tip about someone who went by the name Nikolas Cruz online. That’s Nikolas spelled with a K, N-I-K-O-L-A-S, an unusual spelling. The FBI was notified by a YouTube user after Cruz left a threatening comment on a video. This is FBI Special Agent Robert Lasky.
ROBERT LASKY: In 2017, the FBI received information about a comment made on a YouTube channel. The comment simply said, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment. The FBI conducted database reviews, checks, but was unable to further identify the person who actually made the comment.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, more evidence has emerged showing the Florida school gunman, Nikolas Cruz, shared a common trait with many other men who have carried out mass shootings: He had a record of abusing and threatening women. One student told The New York Times Nikolas Cruz was abusive towards his ex-girlfriend, was expelled after getting in a fight with her new boyfriend. Another student told The New York Times he had been close friends with Cruz but cut him off after he started going after and threatening a female friend of his. And Cruz’s former math teacher told the Times he was taken with another student to the point of stalking her.
Fellow students also said Cruz was known for holding extreme political views. On Thursday, a white nationalist hate group called the Republic of Florida Militia claimed the gunman was a member who had trained with the militia, but the group’s leader later walked back that claim. The former classmates of Cruz did describe him as politically extreme. A 17-year-old junior named Ocean Parodie told The Daily Beast Cruz—quote, “For example, he would degrade Islamic people as terrorists and bombers. I’ve seen him wear a Trump hat.” Cruz once posted a photograph on Instagram wearing a mask and a red “Make America Great Again” hat. CNN also aired footage of a shirtless Cruz wearing the same hat, shooting a gun in his backyard, that was taken by a next-door neighbor. A 16-year-old junior, Josh Charo, who was in JROTC with Cruz—that’s the military training program for high school kids—said Cruz often expressed racist beliefs. Charo told The Daily Beast, “He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone. He’d be like, 'My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.'” In a comment he posted to a YouTube video, Nikolas Cruz also singled out anti-fascist protesters, known as Antifa, to threaten mass murder. His comment read, “Im going watch them sheep fall f— antifa i wish to kill as many as i can.”
Well, we’re joined right now by two guests. In Philadelphia, George Ciccariello-Maher is with us, visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute at New York University, author of Decolonizing Dialectics. And Trevor Aaronson is with us from Florida, the executive director and co-founder of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization, also a contributing writer to The Intercept.
Trevor, let’s begin with you. What needs to be understood right now about what took place in Florida?
TREVOR AARONSON: [inaudible] that we’d be having much more of today, if Nikolas Cruz’s name was Mohammed Mohammed, would be, you know: What was the FBI’s intelligence failure in this? I mean, if you consider the media response and the public outcry following Omar Mateen’s shooting in Orlando, the large question was: How did we miss this? How did the FBI miss this?
And I think what you’re seeing is that the FBI has the mechanisms, through processes called threat assessments, to conduct wide-ranging investigations for people who may pose a threat to people or public safety, and that in Omar Mateen’s case, we saw two of those conducted for—you know, the basis being someone had mentioned to the FBI that Omar Mateen knew the Boston Marathon bombers, and that justified an investigation where the FBI interviewed Mateen, looked through his records.
By contrast, here in Nikolas Cruz’s case, he posted on YouTube, making threatening statements. Given the unusual spelling of his first name, given that he used his real name on the social media comments, you know, it’s a little bit hard to believe that the FBI did not have an opportunity to dig up some information in records, including gun purchase records, that would have been able to at least give them some reason to continue that investigation.
And so, I think what we’re seeing here is really a question of what did the FBI know and whether they should have pursued this more aggressively. You know, I think what we know from previous investigations, that if they believed that Nikolas Cruz was, you know, involved in kind of radical ideologies involving Islam, such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, we would have seen a much more vigorous investigation than what we’ve seen so far, based on what the FBI has come forward with on its investigation of Nikolas Cruz.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, reportedly commented on YouTube, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” again, with his name, with the spelling of his name. And between 2010 and now, the local police visited him, according to CNN, 39 times, his family, for domestic violence or a mentally ill individual at his house. His neighbors talk about how the police were always coming there. There is a serious—and yet, FBI said, you know, “We can’t begin to find something like this.”
TREVOR AARONSON: Yeah, I think it’s important to remember that, you know, post-9/11, the government created a number of entities, or beefed up a number of entities, that would have allowed for the greater sharing of information and intelligence from police agencies to federal law enforcement. A big part of that is the creation of joint terrorism task forces around the country. And one of the largest of those in the nation is in South Florida, and that facilitates the sharing of information, intelligence, from local police to federal law enforcement.
And the way the system is supposed to work—I mean, this system was designed, in large part, to find the next 9/11 attackers, so to speak. But it’s also designed to find people like Nikolas Cruz, who, you know, pose a significant threat to public safety. And the way the system is supposed to work is that by identifying threats, such as the YouTube comment he made, in his own name, you know, not using an alias and seemingly not using a VPN to shield his IP address, that type of tip should have been processed through something like a JTTF, that may have unearthed the police visits in his home in Broward County.
You know, I think it’s important to recognize that, obviously, it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback here and say, “Here’s what the FBI missed.” But I also think it’s important to point out that this is really the FBI’s job, that post-9/11 its primary purpose has been to find threats before they happen. And that doesn’t just involve people who are inspired by ISIS and al-Qaeda. It also involves people who are inspired by other radical ideologies, or, you know, frankly, who are, as Donald Trump pointed out, mentally ill. I mean, the goal is, no matter what the ideology or the purpose, that if someone poses a significant threat, these information-sharing processes are supposed to be able to help the FBI identify the person before they commit their crime.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn for a moment to a guest we had on recently. Shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, that was in June 2016, not so far away from where the Parkland shooting has just happened, Democracy Now! spoke to Soraya Chemaly, and I asked her about this often-overlooked connection between domestic violence and mass shootings.
SORAYA CHEMALY: You see repeatedly in these cases of mass violence, particularly where four or more people are killed, that the perpetrator had a history of attacking an intimate partner, a parent. It happened in the Boston massacre. It happened in Sandy Hook. And so, for many of us, you kind of just wait for this information to come to the surface. And we wonder: Why is it that this kind of behavior isn’t seen as an essential element to understanding lethality in public violence? …
If you have a person living in your community that is violently abusive towards his family, that is a concern for the broader community. In this case in Orlando, which is often the case, there seems to be no report made to the police, which means that we’re inhibited as a society from taking further action. So, he, for example, was completely able to go and legally get guns. We have a federal law that should have prohibited that, if, for example, he had had a restraining order. But more than 50 states actually do not have laws that support that.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s journalist Soraya Chemaly. And again, just to reiterate, one student told The New York Times Nikolas Cruz was abusive towards his ex-girlfriend, was expelled after getting in a fight with her new boyfriend. Another student told the Times he had been close friends with Cruz but cut him off after he started going after and threatening a female friend of his. A math teacher said he was bothering another female student to the point of stalking her. George Ciccariello-Maher, respond to this.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: [inaudible] whatsoever. And, you know, this shooter, who is apparently a white supremacist, is also and has also been violent toward women in his life. This is something that we have known. This is not a surprise. These things go hand in hand, because white supremacy and patriarchy are violent structures of power that, when frustrated, lead to violent conclusions. And yet, when we say this over and over again in the media, it’s treated as if it’s the first time anyone has ever heard it. And all of the data and all the information that we have out there has everything, you know, to tell us that this is actually accurate. And, you know, this is what was said after the Las Vegas—after the Las Vegas shooting, when it came out that the shooter had been, in public, violently aggressive toward his own partner. And it happens repeatedly in cases like this. And it’s really frustrating to have to say over and over again, you know, that this correlation exists, that violence toward women, in this case, also violence toward animals, this sort of violent outlet of aggression across this person’s life, has something to do with feelings of dominance that are also expressed in what is apparently white supremacist ideology, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this issue of the connection to white supremacy, let me go back to Trevor, then to George. Trevor Aaronson, this issue of the link of a person from a Florida white supremacist group saying that Nikolas Cruz trained with them, but now walking it back?
TREVOR AARONSON: Yeah, so, initially, we had a number of reports, that were first initiated by some research that was done by the Anti-Defamation League, that linked Nikolas Cruz to a group based in Tallahassee called the Republic of Florida, which is a white nationalist group that says it’s trying to bring about, you know, a white-only state of Florida. And what the leader of that group said, Jacob Jered, was that Nikolas Cruz had trained with them and was a member of their group. And, in fact, in a subsequent interview with The Daily Beast, Jacob Jered said that they had actually purchased a weapon for him and had trained with him in Tallahassee, as well.
Later, on Gab, which is a Twitter-like social media platform that was set up to provide a home for white supremacists who had been kicked off Twitter for their odious views, Jacob—I’m sorry, Jacob Jered, the leader of the Republic of Florida, walked that back and basically said, “Oh, you know, we have a number of people named Nikolas, and I got confused.”
And so, it’s hard to know if Jacob Jered was just using this tragedy as a way of, you know, getting his organization’s name out there. And if that’s the case, you know, it certainly worked. Or, you know, it’s also possible that Nikolas Cruz did have some white supremacist views. The sourcing on that is a little bit shaky right now, and it’s hard to know. I mean, based on some of the comments that he made against Antifa, for example, I mean, certainly there was some political ideology on the right, but at the same time it’s is a little bit unclear, I think, whether he was indeed a part of a white supremacist group or identified with a white supremacist ideology.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you have his friends saying he was Islamophobic, he was saying whites were superior to blacks and Latinos. And then, continuing on this issue of the connection between this kind of racism and his misogyny.
TREVOR AARONSON: Yeah. I mean, getting back to the point I was making earlier about how, you know, the FBI’s threat assessment system is designed to establish these kind of warning signs and piece them together and put together a profile of who might be dangerous, and then allocate resources accordingly, whether that’s dropping by Nikolas Cruz’s house to interview him and maybe scaring him straight or to, you know, build a case to put together a file that might give you reason to suspect that he could be dangerous in the future. But, you know, certainly, the comments that he made on YouTube and certainly the kind of racist comments that he had made or—you know, a threat assessment, for example, could involve the interviewing of students, of friends, and that’s the type of process that would unearth the things that the media has since unearthed, which is that Nikolas Cruz seemed to have some right-wing beliefs that may have bordered on violence. And, you know, had the FBI investigated this, as you see them investigate cases of possible Islamic extremism, I think it’s a fair argument to make that what the FBIwould have known about Nikolas Cruz would have been much more significant than what it did when the shootings happened, which was basically that the FBI has admitted to knowing very little, if anything, about Nikolas Cruz at the time of the attack.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of Nikolas Cruz being involved with JROTC, with Junior ROTC, George Ciccariello-Maher, if you could talk abut your concerns about this? Also one of the young women who was killed was also a member of JROTC.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER: I think we should, you know, be very attentive to all of these factors. It’s difficult to draw out of his involvement in what is, you know, a very widespread military training program. We should, of course, however, be aware that these are—you know, these are military training programs for a U.S. government that’s involved in mass violence abroad. And we shouldn’t always be surprised to see that violence brought home.
I think we should focus very sharply in this case, though, on this question of white supremacist organizing. I know there are a lot of details going back and forth about it. I wouldn’t be surprised that the—you know, the founder of this white nationalist organization is walking it back out of fear of the scrutiny that he’s going to receive. As I understand it, it was also confirmed by ABC via several classmates that he had been involved in this group. And I think we need to be aware of the fact that the last year has seen a dramatic uptick in open white supremacist, white nationalist violence. We know that these are violent organizations. We know that they’re breeding violence. We’ve seen it in Charlottesville. We’ve seen it when Milo’s supporters have opened fire, you know, on others. And supporters of Richard Spencer have encouraged violence at protests.
And we need to—you know, at the same time, we’re told that these are just ideas in the great marketplace of ideas to be debated and discussed. But what we need to realize is that you don’t discuss white supremacy. You don’t debate it. You destroy it. You out-organize it. And that’s something that we need to be doing on a much broader level, while we’re trying to grapple with what’s gone on in this instance, because we see people being radicalized.
Of course, if they were, you know, Muslim, they would be—you know, the question of where were they radicalized has become a bit of a meme, and yet we don’t ask this question when it comes to these radicalized white youth, who are—you know, who are involved in this mass violence, who are in discussion groups. This is the second—if this is true about his white supremacist ties, this is the second “alt-right” school shooting in two months, the last one in New Mexico by someone who was actively involved in The Daily Stormer, one of the most violent right-wing, anti-Semitic websites on the far right. And this association is direct, and yet we had Trump eliminating almost all oversight of, you know, scrutiny toward white supremacist groups. Even Obama had been cutting that funding. And so, we know that the government is not—has no interest in prosecuting and undermining white supremacist organizations, and that organizations on the ground are going to need to do that themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, Trevor Aaronson, for joining us from St. Petersburg, with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and The Intercept; George Ciccariello-Maher, visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute at New York University, speaking to us from Philadelphia.