By its very nature, a country built on the free exchange of ideas is bound to have citizens whose views differ radically from those of the mainstream. The Internet abounds with sites created by so-called "hate groups," extreme right-wingers boiling over with racist rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and anti-government tirades. But what turns a difference of opinion into an act such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City? "Nobody says, ‘We’re a hate group, we hate people,’" notes Professor Gary Spencer, chair of the sociology department at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, who researches prejudice and discrimination, particularly as manifested on the Internet. "They believe there’s a threat to the values they hold dear. They see themselves as patriots, religious believers, and good citizens who are being threatened by these outside forces and feel they have to do something about it."

The popularity of the television program The X-Files, which is built on the premise of a government conspiracy, shows how compelling such ideas can become, says Michael Barkun, a political science professor at the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences whose research interests include right-wing extremist groups. "Many of these conspiracy beliefs originate on the extreme right, but they can now be found in all sorts of places, in front of tens of millions of people," he says. "I think one factor behind these beliefs is the end of the Cold War, in the sense that we had a clear enemy and it’s not there anymore. In a way, it was unpleasant to have an enemy. On the other hand, it was reassuring, because for many people there was a clear distinction between the forces of good and evil, and that’s disappeared. The kinds of conspiracy theories that crop up now are ways of making sense of the world. In part, they’re replacements for the role the Soviet Union used to play."

Barkun says changes in the nature of communications make ideas once relegated to small and obscure groups widely accessible. "A lot of the weirder themes that show up on The X-Files made earlier appearances on the Internet," he says. "So the kind of sharp line that once existed between what might be called the fringe and what might be called the mainstream has blurred considerably."

Facing Fear

Barkun, whose work includes research on religion and politics and such books as Religion and the Racist Right, studies a variety of radical right-wing groups. He’s also served as a consultant to the FBI, notably during the bureau’s 1996 armed standoff with the anti-government Montana Freemen, which began when the group threatened local judges and prosecutors and ended peacefully 81 days later. "It’s hard to draw lines between these groups because very often they’ll have overlapping memberships and may well share some beliefs," he says. "You’ve got militia groups, neo-Nazis, tax protest groups, Christian Identity groups. To give a dramatic example, there are certain differences in style between the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads, but the differences often are not as clear as some people think."

ap/wide world photos

Heavy equipment is used to remove debris from the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City following the April 19, 1995, bombing.

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