Annoy the Alt-Right in the U.S. today, and you could get ‘swatted’

Swatting is a new digital-age crime in the U.S. in which an anonymous caller reports a fake violent crime to the police that elicits the arrival of a militarised unit known as a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team

November 07, 2020 04:02 pm | Updated 04:02 pm IST

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

As I was talking to my 84-year-old father on the telephone a couple of weeks ago, he said that someone was calling on the other line claiming to be the sheriff and asking some odd questions. The number was listed as ‘Private Caller’ and my father assumed it was a prank call. Then, in the background, I heard my mother say, “There are so many police outside!”

My father said he would call me back, and opened the front door to find several policemen on the porch, pointing assault weapons at him. If he had not opened the door when he did, they would have broken it down. The sheriff’s office had received a message saying that someone had witnessed my mother shoot an individual with a shotgun on a Zoom call. The officers asked to search the house and realised it was a false report.

My parents had been ‘swatted’. Swatting is a new digital-age crime in the U.S. in which an anonymous caller reports a fake violent crime to the police that elicits the arrival of a militarised unit known as a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. One of the deputies explained to my parents that this particular anonymous call had been made to Interpol in Europe, who had then contacted the State’s highway patrol, who contacted the sheriff’s office. The fact that my mother was named, and the exact home address provided, was unsettling to say the least.

Early targets

Some of the earliest victims of ‘swatting’ were feminist critics of gaming culture and female developers of games, but this phenomenon has grown now to target anybody, including senior citizens like my mother. According to the FBI, the number of swatting cases has dramatically increased in the U.S. since the government started officially monitoring the phenomenon in 2008. It is estimated that over 1,000 cases have now been reported.

This still did not explain why my mother was specifically targeted. My parents have lived in this area for over five decades, an area that has a long history with white supremacist groups — I still remember a schoolteacher showing our class a newsletter he subscribed to as a member of a local neo-Nazi organisation.

Swatting is a recent tactic taken up by the Alt-Right. (And it doesn’t help that members of the Alt-Right are joining law enforcement agencies in large numbers.) I began to wonder if there were any connections, given the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments and racism in the area.

When I discussed it with a friend in the tech world, he said I should have a look at the work of Caroline Sinders, a feminist designer of games. I found her 2015 essay entitled, ‘That Time the Internet Sent a SWAT Team to My Mom’s House’, and immediately understood why he had recommended it. The details are eerily similar, except in Sinders’ mom’s case, the caller said a violent crime had occurred and there was a hostage situation. The caller had contacted local police; in my mother’s case it was Interpol. The outcome was the same: a SWAT team arrived at their homes.

Just before the swatting incident, Sinders had been subjected to an online harassment campaign when she wrote about misogyny in the gaming culture. This was another parallel — earlier this year, I too was subjected to anonymous harassment to such an extent that when I spoke to an investigator, they asked if I knew anyone who might specifically want to target me.

On the other hand, this was not the first time my parents were being harassed. As early as 1991, when I was a graduate student, my parents received anonymous phone calls telling them to stop me from writing on topics related to Hindu nationalism. More recently, my parents have continued to receive phone calls due to my writings. One leader of a U.S.-based Hindutva organisation told me that he had carried out an investigation into my family — my parents, my in-laws, my extended family. He then shared a blacklist of scholars his organisation had put together. Their goal was to campaign against those whose research was influenced by Marxism, Feminism, Subaltern Studies, and Critical Theory — basically my areas of interest.

The ubiquity of digital technology that allows for anonymous calls to any police agency in the world makes it easier to initiate a police response. These callers know that the militarisation of law enforcement in recent decades means that SWAT teams will arrive at the doors of unsuspecting individuals in minutes. The police only know one way to respond when they are triggered — and these callers know how to trigger them. The callers are also fully aware that swatting has sometimes led to the killing of innocent individuals, but they also know that swatting calls are not a priority for further investigation by law enforcement agencies unless someone is actually shot. Most of these incidents do not result in deaths, so swatting is an effective form of intimidation and harassment.

I am fully aware that there is no direct evidence that the swatting or the earlier harassment are related to my writings. There was no such evidence in Sinders’ case either, but that is the point after all. When I contacted a cybersecurity specialist who works with police departments in the US, he carefully listened to the details of all that has happened until now. During our conversation, he searched through his databases for further information or leads. He reminded me that online trolling and threats of violence against writers are now everyday occurrences, including organised and targeted attacks. But swatting is an escalation of a different order. He asked me to describe any other possibilities that might have led to it. I pointed out that there were other coincidences that I had only started to consider after the swatting incident.

Spectral harassment

I explained that I had given an interview on V.D. Savarkar, one of the intellectual founders of Hindutva, to the socialist journal Jacobin in late 2019. The interview received some attention in the Indian media, with newspaper articles discussing my argument that violence was central to Savarkar’s argument about being a Hindu. The first anonymous harassment incident followed shortly thereafter. The swatting episode took place after I published an academic article on Savarkar’s interpretation of “violence as Hindu civility”. I gave an interview on the same topic to the Left journal Countercurrents . Again, some commentators in India wrote about it in the national press.

As soon as I mentioned these interviews, I thought the expert would dismiss them as unrelated events, but he did not. In his assessment, “There are too many data points for this to be random.” He added that in his line of work he would not consider these coincidences, especially as I write on a controversial political figure.

There is a spectral nature to these events initiated by faceless, nameless, unseen perpetrators. It is certainly possible that they are simply acts of harassment in the U.S. of today. Perhaps these are the consequences of having identified Savarkar as the ‘ghost father’ of the nation in India. Yet this is paradoxical for me personally. I initially became interested in Savarkar after learning that I had been named after him by one of his disciples, who had given the name to hundreds of other boys.

I take Savarkar’s writings seriously, as he was one of the most important Indian political thinkers of the 20th century. I have argued that people should read Savarkar in India today, even if they fundamentally disagree with his ideas. It is only then that we can fully interpret Hindutva and the idea of India that he influenced and helped to shape. In the end, the harassment has all the traces of the invisible hand of the Right that is no longer interested in intellectual debate.

The writer is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and is writing an intellectual history of V.D. Savarkar.

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