The American Taliban

Violent hate groups continue to ride a rising tide of fear and bigotry

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Thankfully, much of the movement is in pretty serious disarray, due to a combination of factors, but that doesn't mean the potential for violence is all that significantly diminished. If anything, the arrests in Tyler, Texas, in April 2002 show that even small numbers of right-wing activists can build up a terrifying arsenal. The death of William Pierce, in July 2002, left a big leadership vacuum, both in his group and in the movement. Smaller but equally militant groups like the World Church of the Creator, based in Illinois, have been hit hard by recent arrests. In the case of the WCOTC, its leader, Matthew Hale, is currently in federal prison facing charges that he attempted to solicit the murder of a federal judge. Even though membership in the Klan and other hate groups is down, the people that have remained in the movement are more hard-core. But there is another, more dangerous problem that is affecting the political mainstream.

What is that?

What concerns me most is the rising level of prejudice and bigotry in American society, and these attitudes have penetrated well beyond the confines of the far right. More specifically, we're experiencing rising anti-Semitism, skyrocketing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, heightened hostility toward foreigners and immigrants and persistently high levels of racism. In short, these trends don't bode well for the fabric of a democracy ostensibly devoted to protecting civil rights and liberties. Of course it is easy to point to the bombers and shooters of the radical right and identify them as the problem. And they certainly pose a threat and a challenge. In the end, however, their actions basically require a law enforcement response, and there is not a whole lot that everyday citizens can do to counteract the hard-core criminality of domestic right-wing terrorists.

When you talk about rising levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, can you be more specific? How are these things measured?

According to the latest and most comprehensive surveys, fully 17 percent of adult Americans are "strongly anti-Semitic." These 35 million people don't just disagree with Israeli policies toward Palestinians or think that Jews control the media. In order to be considered anti-Semitic according to this research, you have to agree with a whopping six or more anti-Jewish stereotypes like: "Jews have too much power," "Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind," "Jews always like to be at the head of things," and more.

Anti-Semitism has been steadily declining since the end of World War II, but this 17-percent figure is the first recorded increase since social scientists first began asking these questions 40 years ago. That's disturbing. Even worse, people 35 and younger appear to be more anti-Semitic than preceding generations. Other polls have reliably found that a shocking 65 million Americans still believe that Jews killed Christ, 58 million believe that Jews control Wall Street, 48 million think that Jews control the media and 24 percent of people 55 years and older blame "Jewish executives in Hollywood" for "sex and immorality in our popular culture." That's anti-Semitism.

But just because more people are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with Jews doesn't mean they're friendlier toward Arabs or Muslims, or vice-versa. Forty-four percent of people in one 2002 poll said they viewed Muslims as a "threat to the moral character of America." That's double the number (21 percent) who said the same thing about Jews. And in the wake of 9-11, nearly one-third of Americans endorsed the idea of taking special security measures against Arab Americans and immigrants who came from supposedly "unfriendly" countries.

When you talk about persistent levels of racism in society, the data isn't all that heartening, either. Forty percent of Alabama voters cast ballots in favor of keeping a constitutional ban on interracial marriage as part of the state constitution in the year 2000. Sixty percent of whites voted for former Klansman David Duke in the 1990 race for U.S. Senate in Louisiana; and Duke was still able to get 141,000 people to vote for him in 1996 when he tried to run again. Thankfully, he is in federal prison right now after pleading guilty to bilking his followers and cheating on his taxes.

What role, if any, has the Internet played in the spread of these ideas or in the recruitment efforts by the radical right?

The Internet has certainly enabled folks on the far right to circulate plenty of hate propaganda and scurrilous conspiracy theories at minimal expense. This has helped with the spread of everything from Holocaust denial to bogus tracts about black genetic inferiority and fear mongering about non-white immigration. However, there is nothing preventing civil rights groups and others from using the Internet to counter this propaganda or promote an alternative worldview. So as "bad" as the Internet might be as a vehicle to spread hate, it can and should be used in the opposite fashion. The bigger question has to do with how the Internet is used to actually organize people, and I don't think that right-wing paramilitary groups have succeeded very well in that arena. The Internet is still not an adequate substitute for old-fashioned, face-to-face organizing for these groups.

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