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Jannie Coverdale displays portraits of her slain grandsons, Arron and Elijah, as she stands near the site of the former Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The boys were killed in the April 19, 1995, terrorist bombing of the building.

Studying Hate

History professor David H. Bennett traces America’s hate groups to the country’s 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.

Nativism–intense opposition to a minority on the grounds of its alleged un-American characteristics–persisted 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 KKK’s 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 don’t see themselves as joining a hate group," he says. "They see themselves as joining a moral community. They’re patriots, true believers in the revealed word of God, and they have to view the people who don’t 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. "I’m 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 there’s 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 that’s much more permeable–people 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 movements–which seem to embody the perceived threat against the group–may also boost the group’s 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 dignity–but this then becomes a great threat to the belief system of the anti-homosexual group. This group’s 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, it’s incredibly powerful."


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Flames engulf the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993. Eighty-one Davidians, including leader David Koresh, perished as federal agents tried to drive them out of the compound.


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