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A member of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan participates in a demonstration in Marion, Indiana, in November 1995. About 300 spectators, 32 Klan members, and 160 law enforcement officials attended the rally.

Hate on the Web

Spencer’s examination of hate sites on the Internet shows a variety of styles and approaches, but all bearing similar, chilling messages. One provides a detailed definition of the commonly used term ZOG: Zionist Occupation Government, "the assortment of traitors and Zionist lackeys who control most of the white nations on this planet." Provided with the text is a gross caricature of a Jewish businessman, his pockets stuffed with cash, moneybags crushing a hapless victim. Another, www.godhatesfags.com,features a "perpetual gospel memorial" to Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death in 1998 because of his homosexuality. Despite the "memorial" title, the page is an attack on homosexuality, claiming Shepard was damned for eternity, and even featuring an illustration of him suffering there–complete with sound.

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Anti-gay protesters express their views at the funeral of Matthew Shepard in Casper, Wyoming, on October 16, 1998. Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten to death.

Spencer sees an emerging amalgamation of previously disparate hate groups, in part because the Internet has put them in touch with one another. "When everybody’s available out there on the web, your stories, threats, and legitimizations get out there, and you start to see, ‘Yeah we agree with this too.’ To some degree, whether you go to a white supremacist or anti-Semitic site, over time the groups find their common ground." Seeing a fairly consistent pattern in these hateful beliefs is frightening, Spencer says. "The general pattern goes something like this: The superior race of the world is the white race, which emerged out of a combination of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon European peoples. They are, in fact, the true chosen people of God, and God is a Christian god, and the way of life of this superior racial group is under attack. People who are white and Christian and, to some degree, of European-Anglo descent, have to understand that there’s this worldwide conspiracy that threatens their way of life. And the primary orchestrators of this threat are the Jews." Numerous sites provide "evidence" of this conspiracy, pointing out the number of Jewish people controlling world governments, the military, economic systems, and the media.

Spencer says the Internet provides an unprecedented medium for people to share beliefs and values. "You can take any belief system you want and find chat rooms for it on the Internet," he says. "You can find rooms where people who love dogs reinforce that dogs are the most wonderful things in the world. These people know each other by first name. When somebody says I had to put so-and-so to sleep, they all cry about it. And they will talk and worry about regulations that round up dogs and put them to sleep. There probably aren’t a whole lot of reasons for us to go out and study dog lovers in chat rooms, but when you see people who are saying, ‘The enemy is the government.…’"

The Internet does for the general public, Spencer says, what it also does for hate groups: opens the world for an exchange of ideas. "We can find people who share our belief systems and what’s important to us. And to the extent that we find them on the Internet, it reinforces who we are and what we believe. That’s the general process by which everybody learns and reinforces who they are. We find and interact with groups of people who tend to share those beliefs. That gives us a peer group to interact with, so if we share our beliefs and realities, they must be true and must be real, because we are interacting with people who reinforce them. People who don’t feel that way get defined as an out group and you push them off to the side."

Similarly minded people can find each other through web sites, then meet in chat rooms to discuss their views. "And lo and behold, people in England, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and Canada say, ‘Yes, that’s true here, too,’" Spencer says. "So then you have them in contact with one another. Think how wonderful it is to anyone, to bathe yourself with people all over the world who believe in the same things. It becomes a kind of ritual that makes you feel a part of something larger than yourself, feel important. You’re doing something righteous, something morally good, and you’re finding these other righteous people. The Internet just opens up that opportunity in the extreme. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the Internet is as revolutionary as the Gutenberg press."

Making Sense of the Senseless

Incidents such as the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack in Tokyo spark understandable public concern and a flood of media attention, Barkun says. There is a growing fear that extremist groups will turn to chemical, biological, even nuclear weapons to get their points across. But Barkun’s research shows good reason not to believe there is serious danger. "Other than Aum Shinrikyo, there’s been no systematic use of weapons of mass destruction," he says. "It’s one of these things that’s gotten tremendously hyped not only by the media but also in certain law enforcement circles. If you actually look at the amount of damage such groups and individuals have produced, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, it’s been remarkably small."

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A police officer in protective gear responds to the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo.

Another issue garnering much press and public attention, Barkun says, is the "lone wolf," an individual acting on his own on the basis of certain beliefs, but not as a result of involvement in a particular organization. Law enforcement agencies can do little to stop someone like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, since lone wolf extremists are generally difficult to detect before they act. Here too, Barkun says, research can help deflect some of the hype. "There’s a lot of public awareness of this issue, but in a sense I think it’s more than the problem justifies," he says. "When an incident does occur you tend to get panic reactions, which is true of terrorism generally. Because it’s undertaken by people who are unknown or obscure, the feeling is that there may be more of them out there than there really are."

Spencer hopes his research provides a better understanding of how extremists work. In studying such people, he says, one can gain insight into the workings of mainstream society. "Because these groups’ interactions are so exaggerated, it makes available to you the more general interactions that happen on a day-to-day basis in the everyday world, which are so taken for granted that we don’t notice them," Spencer says. "The social processes really aren’t all that different. It’s a matter of degree. These extremes of bigotry and hatred, a belief in a threat to your value system–those are things all human communities in one way or another have to deal with."



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