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Commetary | PERSPECTIVE ON RACISM

This Killer Didn't Just Blindly Hate; He Hated With a Vision

White supremacists have taken a long march from the margins to the mainstream.

July 07, 1999|LEONARD ZESKIND | Leonard Zeskind, who was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1998, is completing a book, "Barbarism With a Human Face: White Nationalism Against the New World Order." He is president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Kansas City, Mo

Once again our country is horrified by the specter of Yugo-like murder. This time, a 21-year-old university student, Benjamin Smith, allegedly killed two and wounded nine others in a three-day shooting spree through Illinois and Indiana that ended with him taking his own life.

As with the recent massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the perpetrator was a young, reasonably intelligent, white male from a comfortable suburban address. Also as with the mindless dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas one year ago and the fear-filled fence-post murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last October, the motivation appears to be racism and bigotry. This is not blind hatred in the Heartland, however, but hate with a vision.

Smith was a dedicated cadre, selflessly devoting himself to a relatively small outfit calling itself the World Church of the Creator, led by a recent law school graduate, Matt Hale. The group cultivates an almost Nietzschean image of itself as the saviors of a "white race" imperiled by a "Jewish occupation government" and a "mud" flood of nonwhite peoples.

By the Creators' account, Christianity disarms whites with its "sickly" Jewish creed. On the other hand, Creativity--as Hale calls his ideology--is a "racial religion that embodies the best values of genetics, biology . . . " ad nauseam. Its first aim, claims the propaganda, is "a revolution of values." Church strategy calls for polarizing white people and driving all others out of the country. RAHOWA, or Racial Holy War, is the battle cry.

This "religion" has led to violence more than once. In all probability, it will do so again in the future. At first glance, it is a vision perverse, almost pornographic. Certainly the Creators' cultish commitment to Matt Hale's fuhrer-ship will confine it to the basement, even of the brown-shirt crowd. And its antipathy to any form of Christianity guarantees it will fail among the God, guts and guns set. Similarly, periodic outbursts of violence by Creativity's followers are sure to embarrass even those like David Duke, who share their belief in a "genetic" basis for white supremacy but aim at the more mainstream goal of electing themselves to office.

But closer examination reveals that the Church of the Creators' underlying thesis, the yen for a "racially pure" country, is shared by a more broadly based white nationalist movement. Once the province of old-style Klansmen and neo-Nazis, this white nationalism now comes in many guises: White power skinheads rocking out to oi and death metal music. Army of God sympathizers hiding bombers in the Tennessee mountains. Survivalists preparing for civil unrest (read race war) alongside militiamen defending against a United Nations invasion. Neo-confederates resurrecting the Lost Cause and white-citizen-council types nipping at the edges of the Republican Party. All see themselves pressed between an internationalist elite and the multicultural masses. One wants to sell their jobs to Mexico, while the other swamps their supposed majority culture. Many find themselves in a mythology that combines the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and the Bible and bestows the full rights of citizenship only to white people.

White supremacists have taken a long march from the margins to the mainstream, like a guerrilla army slowly encircling the cities. After 20 years of torchlight rallies, preaching, radio broadcasts and grass-roots organizing, they have built a distinctive constituency and counterculture institutions. But this isn't the white supremacy of Anglo-American slavery and genocide or Jim Crow segregation. This is a white nationalism for the future, opposed to the New World Order.

Some of my colleagues claim this blindingly white vision is created out of the fears of economic distress. Declining wages and bleak working-class prospects, they say, create a cycle of scapegoating and violence. But the incident involving Benjamin Smith demonstrates just the opposite. No economic angst here. He was solidly middle class, and his prospects were good. But there was a crisis nonetheless. It is a crisis of identity, a question of who we Americans are. Smith found himself barreling down a highway of hate, shooting innocents who did not belong in his Aryan world.

On the other hand, we are zooming into the future, without a firmly held collective vision of ourselves as a multiracial people. Without an alternative to the fantasies of white nationalism, we face an abyss of mayhem and murder.

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