Thursday, May 06, 2004

Facing the far right

Well, we'll take good news where we can find it. And one tidbit of good news came out of northern California a couple of weeks ago when a planned Holocaust-denial conference fell flat on its ass.

The chief blow came when the German social club in Sacramento, where organizers had scheduled their two-day hatefest, got wind of what their little get-together was about (these kinds of groups always deceive their hosts about the nature of their gatherings) and withdrew permission for the gathering.

The event's organizers had neglected to provide for a backup locale, so the conference -- which was to have included a number of the Holocaust denial movement's leading lights, such as they are -- was called off. However, some of those speakers did manage to arrange a reorganized presentation at a different locale in Sacramento.

The conference did provide a venue for one of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's more thoughtless gaffes, particularly in light of his father's service as a Nazi stormtrooper. According to a report in the Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger was invited and declined, but perhaps too nicely:
The governor's situation began innocently enough. He was invited by something called the European American Culture Council to attend a two-day conference this week in Sacramento, before it was canceled amid controversy.

The invitation included references to the group's agenda -- insisting the Holocaust never happened. The governor's staff said no thanks, but sent Arnold's best wishes for a "successful conference." The letter immediately appeared on revisionist Web sites as an endorsement by the governor. "We receive 10,000 requests for the governor, and that was the standard response," said Rob Stutzman, the governor's spokesman. "The name of the group sounded innocuous. It wasn't until later that the true nature of this group was brought to our attention." Another letter was quickly written by the governor's staff, insisting Schwarzenegger would never endorse such nonsense. "The governor's views on this are well-known," Stutzman said.

In any event, while the governor may not have been too observant, the entire incident set off some worthwhile discussion and reflection in the Sacramento Bee newsroom, according to this report from the paper's ombudsman, Tony Marcano:
Should media give attention to Holocaust deniers?

It's one of the real dilemmas journalists must confront in dealing with far-right hate groups. Anytime we give them coverage, there's some likelihood that by giving them publicity, someone who might otherwise remain ignorant of them could actually be recruited into their belief system. Is it worth it?
Newsroom debate ensued -- should this conference, whose participants were to include some of the world's most notorious Holocaust deniers, get any further attention? Some readers argued that decent folks were entitled to know that a hate group was planning to bring in anti-Semites from around the country and a few foreign nations to their community.

There's merit to that argument. There's also merit to the argument that giving hate groups a forum for their animus, even in the context that most people find them odious, lends credence to their views and feeds their life-sustaining paranoia.

... Should the media put a spotlight on racists, anti-Semites and other supremacists and allow them to hang themselves with their own words, or should hate groups be left under their rocks on the grounds that their blather could end up creating a weapon of mass deception rather than a noose?

This was a debate with which I have become all too familiar over the years. I first dealt with it in the late 1970s, when I was the editor (something of a punk, at age 21) of the little daily in Sandpoint, Idaho, some 25 miles north of the new arrivals at Hayden Lake who called themselves the Aryan Nations.

I described some of my early encounters with the dilemma in Chapter 3 of In God's Country:
The letters all arrived the same way: neat, clean, carefully typed in all capitals. It was the neatness -- and the capitals -- that made them distinctive from many of the letters to the editor that crossed my desk at the Sandpoint Daily Bee. But after awhile, it was easy to recognize the correspondence from Robert Mathews.

The Bee was really a small-town paper; we only published five days a week and the paper itself was sometimes only ten or twelve pages thick. We didn't get all that many letters to the editor, so we treasured the few we got. You wrote a letter to us, it was probably going to get published.

Robert Mathews, though, was a little different story.

Mathews sent us letters regularly, one about every three or four weeks, from his home in Metaline Falls. This was actually out of the Bee's circulation area, and we knew he sent the same letters to our sister paper, the weekly Priest River Times, and its cross-river competitor, the Newport Miner. Since we preferred to publish letters from people who lived among our subscribers, we had an easy excuse not to run them.

There were better reasons, though. Almost inevitably, Mathews' missives were filled with anti-Semitic rants about the "Zionist Occupation Government" and the international banking conspiracy, at other times attacking "shiftless blacks" whose welfare burden was killing the nation with taxes. Yes, we welcomed an open debate on the pages of the Bee; but we felt like we had to draw a line when it came to spreading hate and falsehoods.

Most of Mathews' letters went directly to the "round file." Because he wrote so regularly, though, I looked for opportunities to reward his doggedness, deciding I would run the letters if they appeared free of racist or anti-Semitic references. This, however, never did occur.

Robert Mathews' letters were part of a disturbing tide of racial hate, and bizarre radical-right belief systems, that we had observed rising in the Northwest in the 1970s. The phenomenon was a puzzling one, especially for those of us in the newspaper business, because we were uncertain how to respond to it. Were we simply observing a few loud-mouthed ranters wishing to attract attention to themselves? And would covering them or allowing their hate to spew on our pages just give them the publicity, and the foothold, they sought? Would reporting on them just encourage them?

This was not the only context in which we discussed the Aryan Nations in our newsroom. We also discussed -- with the publisher/owner, Pete Thompson, in the mix -- whether or not we should even cover the activities at the compound, as well as some of the hateful material its followers trafficked in beyond even letters to the editor. And we decided not to. With our resources limited in the first place, it seemed as though giving their fringe fantasies about creating a "white Northwest" was not just a waste of space, but something that might actually help distribute those views and, worse yet, recruit fresh followers.

The moral of this story, of course, is that Robert Mathews was not just a typical writer of letters to the editor. Some four years later, he would organize a group of extremist revolutionaries who called themselves the Bruders Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood), more popularly known as The Order. By the time their yearlong crime spree was done, they ended up with an astonishing record of havoc in their wake: some twenty-odd bank robberies and armored-car stickups, including the largest take in an overland-carrier holdup in history ($3.6 million from a Wells Fargo armored car in Ukiah, Calif.); operating a large counterfeiting ring; and most notoriously, the assassination of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg.

As I noted in the book, the Daily Bee changed its policies by the time it was all over. In his last week alive, Mathews penned a long letter and sent it to a few newspapers, including the little paper in Sandpoint. A few days later, he was cornered by the FBI on Whidbey Island and went out in a blaze of glory, remaining inside his cabin after an incendiary device was lobbed into it. The Bee finally ran that letter.

What that incident, and many subsequent cases, convinced me of was this: We can never let our guard down when it comes to fascists and fascism -- especially when it is the real thing. We dismiss them as inconsequential at our extreme peril.

Even this week, a Newsweek report illuminates (somewhat briefly) the resurgence of the far right in the past year, something that cropped up in a recent Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report piece that recorded a mild uptick in the numbers of hate groups. What even more of us are observing is a real surge in recruiting activity, which is always a harbinger of an increase in violence within the next year or so.

The problem is that the smoke from the 9/11 attacks has obscured the source of the same terrorist fires in our own back yard. Mark Pitcavage observes how foolhardy this approach is in a recent news story from Florida:
Apart from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all terrorist activity in the United States over the past 40 years were conducted by domestic terrorists, said Mark Pitcavage, national director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League.

Right-wing extremists "pose the majority of terrorist threats we face today," Pitcavage told about 300 officers from eight Southern states attending a domestic terrorism conference keying on detection and response measures.

Domestic terrorists range from white supremacists to anti-abortion extremists to eco-terrorists. Pitcavage cited the sentencing Tuesday in Texas of William Krar, who was charged with stockpiling 800 grams of cyanide, machine guns and bombs.

"In every part of the country, this stuff is going on," Pitcavage said.

The piece also offered an astute observation from an Israeli intelligence expert, who likewise understands that the American far right has a great deal in common with Al Qaeda, since both hunger for the apocalyptic overthrow of the "corrupt" and "decadent" West:
International terrorism expert Sabi Shabtai, who served in the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, urged law enforcement officers to learn to "think like a terrorist" and create teams of officers who are willing to take unorthodox approaches, not just follow a textbook.

The war on terror is "the most complex, challenging war that the U.S. has ever had to face," Shabtai said. "The enemy continually mutates and reinvents itself."

Fortunately, it's clear that the editors and reporters of the Sacramento Bee now have a clearer understanding of this scope of the issue. As Tony Marcano explained in his piece:
Bee Assistant Managing Editor Scott Lebar, who oversees Metro coverage, said those questions are usually considered on a case-by-case basis. The paper didn't cover the revisionists' conference, he said, "because, really, is this something that needs an advance story, and can the paper in good conscience even think about a walk-up to a gathering of people getting together to mask hate by rendering it in some faux historical nonsense? No, of course not. But can we, should we, explain they exist and they want to meet here? Yes. Could we do that without giving them more weight than they deserve? Yes."

There are, he said, some general guidelines to achieve that. "To me, it boils down to this," Lebar said. "We shine light in the community, we try to help readers understand the world in which they live. That's our job. If the light we shine illuminates something good, it grows. If our light hits a cockroach, it scurries away."

There are always misgivings about the intensity of that light. Shine a light in one corner and you find a bug. Shine it in another and you wake up a bear. But it's better to let people know there's something lurking in the dark shadows, whether it's merely disgusting like a cockroach or potentially dangerous like a bear.

That still leaves the question of whether, using a strict interpretation of objectivity, that approach is fair. Should we not hear both sides of the story and then let the public decide? The hate groups don't see themselves as hateful, and they believe they're acting rationally, so shouldn't the media approach them with no preconceptions? Under that rationale, The Bee's only responsibility would have been to cover the revisionists' conference, allow them to state their alleged evidence and then have honest historians discuss the twists and flaws in that so-called evidence.

Objectivity, however, is not the only criterion for proper media coverage -- a notion many critics of the press fail to take into account. Context and perspective are also necessary. The Bee has no obligation to give voice to anyone skulking behind a veil of deceit and half-truths (hold the snide comments about whichever political party you dislike, please). If it did, the paper would have to cover every press conference convened by people claiming to have incontrovertible proof that the world is flat or that a particular ethnic group is all Satan's spawn. The media can be fair to them only by declining to exacerbate whatever childhood trauma, physiological imbalance or psychological disorder convinces them that such delusions are true.

To cite something that's actually true to life, imagine if the press had not taken a moral stance during the civil rights movement. We would have ended up with images of Ku Klux Klan members handing out candy to balance the horrific accounts of Southern blacks being mangled by attack dogs.

No pretense of objectivity here. There are within our society people who are just as morally bereft and potentially dangerous as any follower of al-Qaida, despite their belief that God and the truth are on their side (Nazis, slave owners and apartheid governments said that, too). The press has every right to ferret them out and give the public a whiff of their stink. It may not be pleasant, and it may not be objective, but it is responsible.

Actually, journalists have a responsibility to be genuinely objective -- that is, to favor objective fact and to report blatant falsehoods to their readers. The recent journalistic fetish with presenting an objectively true statement from one side and a blatantly false statement from its opposition, and presenting them side by side without comment, all under the pretense of being "balanced" or "objective," is not merely lazy and misleading, it's outrageous, because it gives falsehood an equal footing with fact.

But Marcano's central point is exactly right. There is, in fact, a real danger that giving liars like the Holocaust deniers and the neo-Nazis any kind of publicity at all will help them spread their poison and gain new followers. In fact, it's almost certain that this will happen to at least a minor extent. However, that problem is far outweighed by the extent to which the larger society can see this kind of activity for what it is. In this sense, the kind of reporting that's done is essential; if it's shallow reporting that resorts to a phony "balancing" act, then the more likely the extremists are to succeed; the more grounded and in-depth it is, the more likely you are to blunt any potential recruitment effect.

Worse, trying to create an information vacuum only leaves society even more vulnerable. Pretending they don't exist, for one thing, plays into extremists' own mythology, particularly the belief that the "mainstream media" don't "dare" to run their conspiracy theories because it's the "truth". It also means that the widespread opprobrium they should be hearing is absent. Haters love to believe they're carrying out what the rest of society really, secretly, wants, but no one dares say so because of "political correctness."

Ignoring the extremist right and the threat of violence it represents shouldn't be an option. But its very existence raises uncomfortable truths -- about ourselves, about our law-enforcement system, about the current "war on terrorism."

And refusing to confront them may prove to be very, very costly.

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