The Dodge Challenger is a muscle car, capable of accelerating from zero to sixty in 3.9 seconds and achieving a top speed in excess of two hundred miles per hour, all courtesy of a supercharged engine that starts at 305 horsepower. This is the car that twenty-year-old James Alex Fields chose to drive from Ohio to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the one he accelerated into a throng of jubilating counter-protesters, killing a thirty-two-year-old paralegal and injuring at least nineteen others. Then, while people stumbled and lay wounded in the street, he put the car in reverse and floored the gas again.
In America, cars have been the weapon of choice in mass killings perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness or under the influence of narcotics (San Diego in 1995, Venice Beach in 2013, New York City earlier this year), and for terrorist attacks motivated by Islamic extremism (the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2006, and Ohio State University in 2016). But as far as I can tell, Charlottesville marked the first time in recent recorded history that a citizen with American hate in his heart intentionally used a car in an act of domestic terrorism—one in which the aim was to kill for reasons not of madness or addiction, but ideology.
“This is usually the purview of jihadi terrorist attacks,” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen told PBS shortly after the incident. “Now we are seeing this tactic being adopted by people with other ideologies.” In 2016, cars became the single most deadly form of attack in Western countries, responsible for more than half of the terrorism-related deaths in the West. According to the Counter Extremism Project, this increase is attributable to that fact that ISIS has explicitly called on supporters to use cars as weapons. “The ISIS call, as well as that of other terrorist groups, has been to use what you have on hand,” John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence for New York police, told CNN in 2015. “And that means if you can make a bomb, you’re a bomber. But if you can’t, use a gun. And if you can’t find a gun, use a knife. And if you can’t find a knife, use a car.”
Vehicular violence is by no means an ISIS innovation—in 2015, Palestinian assailants used cars and bulldozers to kill and injure people in more than forty-eight incidents. A 2010 Al Qaeda magazine article offered tips: “To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control of your vehicle in order to maximize your inertia and be able to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Reporting by Fortune suggests at least some attendees of the Charlottesville rally were prepping for vehicular violence long before August 12th: that on private chat channels, they discussed driving a vehicle through opposition crowds, and later celebrated Fields’ actions. Chillingly, since then, another citizen hostile to a protest’s cause also used a car for violence and intimidation, ploughing through a St. Louis crowd gathered in outrage over the police shooting of a transgender woman. “Videos posted to social media indicate that a car slowly approached the intersection, then inched through the crowd before accelerating,” reported The New York Times.
Fields’ case is still developing, and we don’t yet know if he weaponized his car impulsively in the heat of his hatred, or if the act was premeditated. The evidence so far suggests that his attack was not meticulously planned or executed; he crashed into several other vehicles and was arrested swiftly after. So what motivated Fields, in what was likely a split-second decision, to choose his car as his weapon when guns were in plentiful supply?
J. Peter Rothe, retired professor of public health at the University of Alberta and author of Driven to Kill and ten other books on criminology and traffic safety, may be the foremost authority on this idiosyncratic corner of the modern human psyche. “There’s a morality of the roadway,” Rothe told me, his face bathed in shadow on the Canadian side of the screen. “There are certain rules at play, and expectations as to how everyone should operate. Driver, pedestrian, cyclist. When you use a motor vehicle to murder a pedestrian, that breaks the rules, we absolutely don’t expect it. It’s the ultimate violation of normalcy.”
Rothe has been researching vehicular homicide for decades, and monitoring the data of other scholars in the field. One school of thought says that the inside of a car constitutes a special, “other” space that we perceive as apart from our normal reality—and that this means people who are ordinarily good and kind can become violent maniacs at the wheel. Rothe disagrees, arguing that we’re the same person in a car as we are outside of it. From his research, he’s concluded that while we’re all capable of committing vehicular violence, we are deeply socialized to follow the rules and expectations of the road, and that it takes a lot to overcome that programming.
“If I’m rotten on the road, I’m probably rotten in the swimming pool,” Rothe says. “We all have thought at one time or another, I should just ram this guy. But we don’t.” Still, Rothe agrees with his peers that cars are a particular kind of space, one that seems to endow us with a kind of invisibility or anonymity cloak. In cars, we feel more free to pick our noses, do drugs, give blowjobs—it’s easy to believe we’re not being watched, or at least that there’s a kind of barrier or distance between us and the outside world. This space allows for a kind of psychic freedom from other people, Rothe says, which can fan the flames of homicide. Logistically of course, cars also allow killers to flee the scenes of their crimes.
Rothe’s research suggests that those who use cars to kill tend to be driven by extreme and spontaneous emotion, rather than a cogent motive. Usually, the emotion is rage. Mental health issues and illness are a solid thread connecting many of the cases Rothe has studied. (Fields was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen and prescribed antipsychotic medication.) Many perpetrators expressed a willingness or desire to inflict pain up close—in their minds, the car is an extension of the driver’s fingers, hands, body.
“It’s one thing if I put a bomb in your car,” Rothe explains. “It’s so far down in the distance I don’t even have to look. That’s a very objective form of death. If I use a gun, I can shoot you from quite a distance. But if I use a knife to kill you, it becomes very immediate, I look at you, I touch you. A car is similar in that sense.”
A combination of masculinity and feelings of powerlessness also comes into play. In his research, Rothe saw many incidents of vehicular violence that followed the breakup of a romantic relationship. He describes a typical scenario: “I get in my car, I’m stewing or maybe drinking, and I kill someone on the street who is annoying me. It’s an immediate vengeful act. Mixed into this kind of crime is the sense that I’m a coward, I’m taking out the most defenseless person who does not see me coming. It makes me feel strong.” In all his research, the perpetrators of these kinds of crimes were men—who also turn to them as a way to settle fights. “A smaller guy gets beat and he comes back and mows the bigger guy down. Cars are a way for people who feel themselves to be small or victimized to become super powerful.”
“But what does it mean?” I ask him. What makes one angry, vengeful, emotional driver kill while another just drives too fast to blow off steam? These crimes, Rothe explains, tend to contain an ideological component—a belief that the driver embodies one type, and the victim another, and that the driver, with control of the wheel, is stronger and better. It’s the combination of the emotional and the ideological that’s fatal.
“These people want to kill people who don’t [have] the same beliefs they have. If I believe, for example, in a really ugly sense, that women are not good drivers and I see a female driver, I may take action on her,” Rothe says. “I may think, this is what she deserves. Or, ‘What are these people demonstrating for?’ I have not only anger, but a real sense of ‘I’m right. I’m right in doing this because they are just lesser.’” About Fields, he says, “The hate and rage is so intense. The backing up. Maybe he didn’t think they were dead, or dead enough.”
In a 2015 interview with Broadly about the epidemic of men killing transgender women, gender theorist Judith Butler used similar language. “Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough,” Butler said. “At a certain point, she is already dead, but he is not finished killing her. Why? It is because he wants to obliterate any trace of his own relation to that living person, obliterating a part of himself and living person at the same time. But also establishing his absolute power, and his own masculinity as the site of that power. Perhaps he is rebuilding his gender as he continues to try to take apart and efface that trans woman who never deserved to die. He is seeking as well to establish a world in which no one like her exists.”
In the space before our time together ends, Rothe wants to tell me one more thing. It’s not that James Alex Fields is a monster, he says. “You have to see the bigger picture. He is like us. What he did was an extreme action, but it was connected to a spectrum of many other violent actions that happen with cars all the time. I’m only surprised we don’t see more of it.”
“The cars most of us drive every day as a condition of being productive members of society possess incredible destructive potential,” Sarah Goodyear wrote for City Lab in 2013. “And yet we can’t allow ourselves to worry about it. What would happen to the American way of life if we did?” Indeed, few of us think about the fact (or even know) that automobiles kill more people in America each year than do all weapons combined.
Do you know what horsepower really is? I didn’t. Imagine a pulley system whereby a horse is lifting a 330-pound bucket of coal up a one hundred foot shaft. Then imagine three hundred and five horses doing this at the same time, for a total result of over 100,000 pounds of work. That’s what James Alex Fields’ car was capable of. Subtract a few horses, and that’s what my car, and yours, does every day.
There is perhaps no single space more iconically American than the inside of a car. It conjures freedom, autonomy. Journeys. Jobs. Capitalism. This space has treated me well and taken me far. I once drove a ‘97 Toyota Tacoma pickup across more than 10,000 miles of American highway by myself, at a time when I needed to feel the power that comes from the ability to change my own circumstances, my own scenery. I slept in the back, turning the camper top handle and retreating into a bed I’d made myself from some boards and a futon pad.
Cars are emotional, connected to the stuff of our lives in the way no other weapon can be. Their meaning and their capabilities bleed together with our feelings and, fears, our deepest issues and illnesses. The alchemy of this can create a murky zone of violence where cars are not quite weapons—but not simply transportation either. Take the June murder of 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen outside Washington, DC: a man fought with a group of pedestrian teens, pulled his car up onto the sidewalk and then exited his car and beat Hassenen with a baseball bat. Or take the 2015 murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Barakat, and Razan Abu-Salha in an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, supposedly sparked by the fact that the Muslim couple and their sister sometimes parked in a spot that belonged to their murderer. We tend to understand these crimes as explicitly car-related (think “road rage or “parking dispute”) or as violence motivated by ideological hate. The truth may be that it is not a matter of either/or, but a strange kind of both—in a way that cars and their drivers seem uniquely able to perpetrate.
Since Charlottesville, I’m driving differently. The road looks different to me now. I see a Dodge Challenger, or any kind of muscle car roaring by me in the left lane, and I’m not jealous anymore; I’m afraid. The freedom of the American road, vehicular violence, white supremacy, and misogyny have always been like parallel lanes on a highway, speeding forward together. Fields just showed us what it looks like when they merge.