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A 'Church' of Hatred

July 07, 1999

Americans are soul-searching again in the wake of a violent expression of hatred, the Midwest shooting spree of Benjamin N. Smith last weekend. What caused him to do this? What could have prevented it?

There is no simple answer. Something evil clicked in Smith's mind to push him across the line from racist thought to violent action. Perhaps it was the recent decision by Illinois authorities to deny a license to practice law to Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, a hate group that Smith followed. The state bar rightly ruled that Hale's virulent beliefs were a "gross defect in moral character."

By the time Smith, 21, took his own life late Sunday, two people were dead and at least nine had been wounded--blacks, Orthodox Jews, Asians. This was the most recent hate-motivated crime in a horrifying series--the dragging death of a black man in Texas, the slaying of a young gay man in Wyoming, the Colorado shootings in April and the firebombing of three synagogues in Sacramento last month.

Clearly Smith was disturbed, a young man who felt himself an outcast, much like the two youths who went on the murderous rampage at Columbine High School.

The law properly if painfully protected Smith's freedom to air his views so long as they did not constitute a specific threat of violence--though certainly law enforcement should continue to monitor hate groups like Hale's "church" for threats or warnings of violence. And Hale should face the repulsion of society. But it's not likely that any new law could be crafted that would curb a violent outburst like Smith's.

In fact, Smith had been rejected when he tried to buy firearms from a licensed dealer, stymied by a protective order brought against him after he beat a former girlfriend. But he subsequently bought two guns from an illegal street dealer.

Some claim we are becoming a more prejudiced society, but there is no evidence of that. Nevertheless the increase in reports of hate-related violence is cause for serious concern. Americans must respond to all forms of hatred with the united force of public opinion. The perpetrators of violence must be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And the weight of justice should bear on those who provide the weapons used by hate-filled people to carry out crimes.

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