History professor David H. Bennett traces Americas hate groups to the countrys colonial days, when American Catholics faced intense hostility under the nativism of the Protestant majority. He notes that the best-selling book in America at the time was a thin volume with the unwieldy title The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal. The book, which sold more than 300,000 copies, recounted the alleged story of a Protestant girl captured by a vicious mother superior and subjected to horrible abuse. "Even though there were only 35,000 Catholics in the entire country at the time of the Revolution, there was a pandemic fear of them," says Bennett, a Maxwell School and College of Arts and Sciences professor whose 1995 book, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, recounts a history of hate.
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A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter buzzes past the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian compound on March 27, 1993, near Waco, Texas.
Nativismintense opposition to a minority on the grounds of its alleged un-American characteristicspersisted with each new wave of immigration, Bennett says, finally dying out in the 1930s. His book traces right-wing movements through the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War; the Red Scare of the twenties and the KKKs short-lived rebirth as the Great Klan; the beginning of anti-Communism in the late forties and the rise of the American Nazi Party, Klan fragments, and other groups targeting various minorities in the fifties and sixties; the birth of the Christian Identity movement; and the rise of present-day militia groups. "All of these are hate groups," Bennett says. "They all fear certain people they consider un-American."
Sociology professor Spencer examines what he calls "the sociology of evil"how these groups come together, and ways in which they define entire categories of people to exclude them from their "moral community." "Of course they dont see themselves as joining a hate group," he says. "They see themselves as joining a moral community. Theyre patriots, true believers in the revealed word of God, and they have to view the people who dont share those values, beliefs, and behaviors as somehow unworthy of the dignity they afford their own people. Those people have to be made to look immoral and, in extreme cases, less than fully human."
While one might tend to consider extremists as ignorant or mentally disturbed, Spencer prefers a different approach. "Im interested in the social process by which these individuals find one another and organize themselves in a group or co-activity," he says. "There are patterns to how they communicate and establish symbols and rituals that reinforce their belief system and oneness. As a general sociological principle, rituals that reinforce your oneness with a group draw boundaries around who is a member of that group. One of the ways you draw boundaries is to identify who belongs to other groups, and in a sense they become the enemy or the threat that now binds a group together."
While each group he studies has its own characteristics, Spencer says the groups as a whole share some basic similarities that help in understanding them. "Frequently theres a charismatic leader or founder who speaks
eloquently about a threat and its danger, and he or she will often have a relatively small group of hardcore believers who devote a
great deal of time and effort to organizing, writing, or putting up web sites. And then there is a wider, larger ring thats much more permeablepeople come in and out of the organization and at some particular time have a fairly strong
involvement in it." Membership ebbs and flows according to such phenomena as economic downturns and upswings. Political social movementswhich seem to embody the perceived threat against the groupmay also boost the groups ranks. As an example, Spencer cites contemporary movements devoted to mainstreaming the notion of homosexuality as simply another form of sexual orientation. "These movements are saying you ought to recognize that people who have homosexual
orientations are very good citizens, act with dignity, and treat other people with dignitybut this then becomes a great threat to the belief system of the anti-homosexual group. This groups members see homosexuality as a perversion, legitimize their view in Scripture, and view these people as less than fully human, and totally lacking in and undeserving of dignity. Laws specifically protecting the rights of gays and lesbians would be another example to these groups of how they have to find each other and try to fight what they see as a pattern of changes taking place in society that are immoral, dangerous, and threaten them and their civilization. Enacting such laws offers them a chance, and indeed a need, to organize."
Spencer has found that, quite often, the degree to which people perceive these threats matches their feeling that they have a moral obligation to do something about them. "To use an extreme, if you believe certain people are vermin and civilization would be better if they were destroyed, now you have a moral obligation to destroy them. In its simplicity, its incredibly powerful."