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Skinheads: When Violence Feeds on Chaos

July 25, 1993|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, senior editor of the Christian Century and author of numerous books on American culture and religion

CHICAGO — As if Los Angeles did not have enough trauma on its collective mind, now it has to cope with terror. In headlines and on prime-time news around the world, the new California code word is "skinheads." Assistant U.S. Atty. Marc R. Greenburg charged, on July 15, that some recently arrested "Fourth Reich Skinheads" had been plotting to "spark a holy war." The white-supremicist youth planned to kill rabbis with mail bombs, blow up the huge First African Methodist Episcopal Church and mow down worshipers there. California's trauma and terror is America's.

Reinhold Niebuhr used to call America a gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity. The gadgets remain; paradise is lost. Formerly, terrorism subverted Iran and Israel, India and Northern Ireland. Now it has attacked nerve centers in Manhattan and California, and there is no place to hide between them.

You won't find the Fourth Reich Skinheads or their newly exposed kin, the Church of the Creator, the Confederate Hammer Skins, the White Aryan Resistance, the Nationalist Skinhead Knights or the Aryan National Front in the existing Yellow Pages of the racist underground. Fortunately for us, however, the federal infiltrators did find them in time. Until now, skinheads had been far off: nihilist young Brits who hated immigrants, or Germans who drew on old Nazi impulses--as American skinheads also do--to display paranoia about non-Aryans next door. Now it is the skinheads who are next door.

Christopher David Fisher of Long Beach, the alleged would-be chief bomber of churches, was "an everyday average clean-cut good kid," according to neighbors. This middle-class, all-American youth seemed to have no reason to link with or lead hate groups. A flight engineer and his real-estate-selling spouse were among other arrestees. They all should have an investment in seeing America work. Yet, they would provoke "holy war" so it would no longer work, or would work their Aryan-Christian way.

"None of us here were surprised," said Ku Klux Klan watcher Danny Welch of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The skinheads clearly announced their purpose; it was "the sort of thing they cut their teeth on." To prevent the murders, government officials had to act quickly. This meant blowing their cover, thus making future infiltration harder and driving the underground deeper into their secret hells.

The skinheads did not yet spark holy war, but they did quicken holy terror. From those secret hells such terror emerges; it took only a few who were aliens to wreak havoc in Manhattan and a few who were alienated to plot havoc in Los Angeles. Who else is out there? We like to think we can "do something" in the face of all challenges. But no more than piling up berms and levees can contain the Mississippi when it has the will to flood, can society assure itself that hate groups will never spill out of the banks of their self-constricted ways. The impulse to "do something" gets thwarted by realism about the limits of what one can do.

Aside from taking lessons in human powerlessness, citizens seek some sort of responsible thought and action. But the first steps toward that are not to be made without hesitation. For example, while the public can be grateful for the successful infiltration of the skinhead front by the authorities, the civil-libertarian side of our minds has to be disturbed by the notion that our future will see more surveillances. Thoughtful people will seek some new strategy in a society that needs protection from bombers and snoopers alike.

There are more positive things to do in respect to the shape of society itself, after we tried to account for the skinhead scurryings. An image: Turn over a sun-beaten plank. Under it, you are likely to find a few creeping little white creatures. So beneath the huge expanses of American culture, under the mix of 250 million diverse souls, there is a good statistical possibility that you will find some crawling little White Aryan creatures. They create problems for any who want to picture them born with human dignity. The Posse Comitatus, the anti-"mud races" Christian Identity, the Christian Patriots (and why do so many need to be "Christian"?) groups show up in the expanses of Idaho and Oregon, where they have no reason to be. Their presence there tells us too little.

The skinheads who would spark "holy war," however, provide better clues. Holy wars--always the unholiest--occur when chaos leaves openings for ideology. When things have gone wrong, and loss ofcommon purpose encourages ominous experiment, people look for scapegoats. Thus in America, the Ku Klux Klan had its best moments in the chaos of Southern Reconstruction. The Bund and other U.S. Nazi movements fed less on ties to Hitler overseas than on Depression-era resentments and upsets at home.

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