Thursday, July 15, 2004

The waxing of the dark tide

Of all of humanity's most primitive and destructive traits, racial and religious hatred and their attendant bigotry are probably the most difficult to eradicate. Modern society often congratulates itself on how far we've come in bringing hate to bay -- and the resulting complacency provides the fecund dark space needed for it to fester and grow anew.

People who have had direct dealings with hate groups and their adherents know this. It's one of the reasons why I expend as much energy as I do in exposing the machinations of right-wing extremists.

I have at various times been accused, unsurprisingly, of being obsessed with them, perhaps unhealthily so. My view is somewhat different, of course; it's my feeling that the haters and their activities are in reality more significant than is usually recognized, particularly by the press. The smallness of their numbers belies the breadth and depth of their reach.

In the early years of the new millennium, there was something of a collective sigh of relief in the press as it became clear that right-wing extremists were in decline, particularly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. A number of media accounts focused on reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center that certain kinds of right-wing extremism -- expecially "militias" -- were in serious decline.

But the naked hatred of the far right never really dies, and it always awaits fresh opportunity, which is why it always comes and goes in cycles. For every waning of the far right and dark impulse it embodies, there is always the inevitable waxing.

What these reports described, in reality, were part of a typical "down" cycle for the far right. But those of us with more experience also understood that the remaining adherents were, if anything, typically more radicalized during such cycles, were far more likely to eventually act out, and were capable of springing back to life at any time -- with new faces and new strategies, of course, but as vicious and virulent as ever.

And in the past six months or more, it has gradually become clear that just such a resurgence is happening.

A recent report from Newhouse News Service's Chuck McCutcheoon describes the way it's happening:
Right-Wing Extremist Groups Becoming More Active After Post-9/11 Lull

Radical right-wing activity slowed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as internal disagreements erupted over the merits of the attacks and leaders of several organizations died or went to jail, several authorities said. But the groups are becoming more active -- distributing leaflets in neighborhoods, holding public rallies, starting Web sites and reaching out to like-minded activists overseas.

"We have to understand that these groups are not passe and are starting to re-emerge," David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, told law enforcement officials at a recent Justice Department conference in Washington.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights watchdog that monitors the groups, counted 751 active U.S. chapters in 2003, up from 708 the year before. The number of hate-related Web sites rose from 443 in 2002 to 497 last year, the center said in a report.

Some of the activity, as the report details, is in the form of public meetings and gatherings of like-minded true believers, often organizing in fresh guises that pick up where some of the far right's decaying older groups have left off.

These include the simultaneous events by white-supremacist Christian Identity groups, as well as the gathering in western Montana of a relatively new white-supremacist sect. Even the seemingly moribund Aryan Nations is still going, though its planned Aryan parade this coming weekend is generally viewed as a kind of death rattle that is, perhaps appropriately, being mostly ignored.

Then there's the scheduled rally this weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, of the National Socialist Movement, an event that is expected to cost local officials some $28,000 to police.

The bulk of the new activity is manifesting itself in the form of flyer distribution. Every day, it seems, brings a fresh news account from somewhere in the nation of white-supremacist fliers being left on people's doorsteps or being passed out on neighborhood streets.

In the past week alone, we've seen fliers popping up in such places as Citrus Heights, California, Vancouver, Wash., and Williamsburg, Va..

There's nothing about the flier distributions that indicate any actual increase in numbers by these groups; and it's difficult at best to tell whether they have any actual effect on recruitment. But they do indicate a real increase in activity and energy. These groups are becoming clearly more active now in their efforts to expand their appeal -- and it is equally clear that they are doing so because they believe the environment is ripe for success.

But concern about recruitment into these groups is only a small part of the picture when it comes to appreciating the effect they have on larger society. Even more worrisome is the way their hateful beliefs are spread into the mainstream, infecting not just potential recruits but ordinary people who have no desire to join a skinhead organization but for whom, for various reasons, their racial scapegoating resonates.

One of the important ways this manifests itself is in the form of hate crimes. As I explain in Death on the Fourth of July, only a small portion (roughly 8 percent) of the 9,000 or so bias crimes that are committed every year in America are committed by members of organized hate groups. Contrary to the stereotype, the average hate criminal is a young white male with little or no previous criminal record and no known association with hate groups. Typically he participates in the crime as part of a group.

Yet in the vast majority of hate crimes, the rhetoric and symbology of hate groups, such as "White power!" chants and the brandishing of Confederate flags or burning crosses, are used during their commission. This clearly suggests the extent to which these groups' influence extends well beyond their sheer numbers and have infected the public discourse.

So it is perhaps not surprising, then, that in an environment in which hate-group rhetoric is gaining increasing circulation, hate crimes appear to be surging as well. The connection, of course, can probably never be proven, but the pattern is becoming fairly clear.

In recent weeks, we have seen disturbing hate crimes being committed in various parts of the country. Last weekend in Clinton, Iowa, a young Illinois man nearly killed a white acquaintance with his vehicle -- pinning him against another car -- because he was a "race traitor" (that is, the victim had black friends). Meanwhile, three young whites in Valrico, Florida, painted a black neighbor's house with swastikas and Klan epithets.

And then there was the case of the gay Seattle man attacked by three thugs who left him with a huge gash in his back as well as various other injuries. The case so outraged the local community that a march protesting the attack was held in Seattle last week. Two of the three suspects -- who attacked the man after inquiring whether he was a "faggot" -- have been arrested.

There is a disturbing thread that runs through all these cases (as well as other recent hate crimes): All the perpetrators were young men, either teenagers or men barely out of their teens.

This, of course, fits the profile. But it also fits the trend that has developed in the past year in which young teens have also begun adopting the rhetoric, symbology and even the ideology white-supremacist groups, even though they may never join such groups. I discussed the appearance of this trend in the San Diego area previously, but the apparent adoption of racist beliefs by these young men is especially worrisome. There has always been a tendency among hate criminals in this regard, but the unapologetic defense of these beliefs has usually been relegated to a minority of cases. Now it appears to be growing.

Judging by these trends, it would not surprise me to see 2004 record a serious increase in the level of hate-crime activity for the first time since the FBI began recording statistics (in 1991). We won't know, of course, for another year and a half, when the numbers are finally released in the bureau's annual reports. In the meantime, we're left with the far more immediate problem of how to contain the appearance of this dark tide.

Why is this happening now? Americans need to begin looking in the mirror for answers. It isn't very hard to see that the current milieu is a prime environment for this to occur.
-- The country is being led by a cadre of thoughtless fearmongers who do not hesitate to wave the bloody shirt of terrorism to silence their critics and stigmatize anyone who acts "different." The harmful effects of this behavior from our leadership on the general populace is incalculable.

-- A particularly shallow brand of patriotism -- replete with jingoist sentiments, hatred of The Other, and a hollow symbolism -- has been promoted in every possible avenue, from national television broadcasts to the corner drugstore. This kind of thoughtless "Americanism" is an important feature of many hate crimes (including the one Death on the Fourth of July focuses upon) and plays a significant role in forumulating the motivations for this violence.

-- Most of all, a fog of intolerance has filtered across the national landscape over the past decade, thanks mostly to right-wing propagandists with massive popular reach: Rush Limbaugh, Michael Weiner (aka Savage), Dr. Laura, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and the whole phalanx of their imitators. The thrust of the modern conservative movement has morphed from any sense of real conservative values into a relentless attack on the very notion of tolerance for anyone who is not part of that movement: liberals, gays and lesbians, other faiths, other colors.

Try to suggest, of course, that these trends are unhealthy, and you'll be denounced -- as unpatriotic, as paranoid, as a smear artist (projection being endemic to both the defense and attack of the American right). So the media, and the rest of us, comfort ourselves with the hollow notion that the above cases, and the many like them, are merely "isolated incidents."

We are all whistling past the graveyard.

[Thanks to Marty Heldt for the tip on the Clinton case.]

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