In both the United States and Europe, the late 20th century saw an upsurge in the formation of right-wing extremist groups and other groups often labeled hate groups (advocating the expulsion or destruction of an entire people because of race or religion). At the same time, there was an accompanying upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic and racist incidents of harassment and violence. Although most of these groups do not use explicitly religious arguments in defense of their ideologies and ideas, some of them most certainly do. In fact, in one recent study, it is stated that “if there were one thread that runs through the various far-right movements in American history it would be fundamentalist Christianity” (Michael 2003, 65). It is important to know about these groups, particularly because many of them have become quite sophisticated in their public presentation, often masking their true intentions behind quite normal sounding “research groups,” “churches,” or “cultural activities.”
I. Variety of Groups
II. Definitions and Membership
III. Characteristics of Extremist and Hate Groups
IV. Watching the Extremists
V. The “Christian Identity” Movement
VI. Hate-Crime Laws
Variety of Groups
Extremist movements, hate groups, and militias have been a part of the American landscape for many decades. The Ku Klux Klan, one of the most notorious of the American-grown terrorist organizations, was originally formed in 1865, based originally in Pulaski, Tennessee. It has been responsible for literally hundreds of lynchings and killings, mostly (but not exclusively) in the southern United States, but it dwindled into virtual nonexistence before World War I. The Klan, however, was revived and refounded by William Simmons, a Christian pastor, in 1915, and advocated versions of the Christian Identity doctrine (see below), and recent Klan groups (there are now various splinter groups) have been implicated in violence and murders in the United States as recently as 1981.
Related extremist groups are the various militias that provide training in firearms and often advocate being prepared for an ideological battle or outright war between races or that comprise adherents of unacceptable beliefs.
Among the less violent groups but still advocating racism are organizing groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), founded in 1985 in Atlanta, Georgia, but now based in St. Louis, Missouri, with a membership of 15,000.
Finally, there are variations of the Christian Identity movements that take the form of a “churches,” often using names such as Church of the Aryan Nation or Christian Identity.
Definitions and Membership
Scholars of right-wing groups define these movements in many different ways. How one defines them obviously has serious implications for how many movements fall within these definitions and therefore affect the statistics on how many such groups currently exist.
According to a 1996 study by the Center for Democratic Renewal (an important organization that is considered one of the main watchdog groups keeping tabs on rightwing extremism in the United States), “there are roughly 25,000 ‘hard core’ members and another 150,000 to 175,000 active sympathizers who buy literature, make contributions, and attend periodic meetings” (Michael 2003, 1).
However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the main sources of information for right-wing extremist groups, posts on its Web site a list by state of extremist groups active in the United States. Upon reviewing this list (and taking only the top 20 states for active hate groups), one discovers a somewhat surprising comparison with the previous list, suggesting that these groups have a wider geographical distribution than one might expect.
Studies of membership across the United States have reported that the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the main conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building on June 11, 2001, which killed 168 people, seems to have slowed membership growth in various American hate groups. However, only a few months later, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, stopped the downward trend in militia membership, and the movement began to pick up membership once again.
Characteristics of Extremist and Hate Groups
George Michael lists a number of characteristics that he suggests are generally common among extremist groups:
- Small locus of identity. Groups tend to strongly identify themselves with very locally defined groups—at most a nation, but often a race within a nation or a race within a region. Members are not interested in recruiting beyond a select few because they view the rest of the world in highly negative terms.
- Low regard for democracy. Although most groups abide by federal rules, they often have a low regard for systems that give too much freedom to all people— including, of course, the excluded groups. This violates their sense of privilege and the feeling that their membership should be limited to a select few.
- Antigovernment. Many groups view the federal government with great suspicion and see it as hopelessly under the control of particular groups.
- Conspiracy view of history. Groups view historical as well as recent events according to complicated and dubious theories of conspiracy and control by some particular hated group.
- Racism. Their views often exclude nonwhite races entirely, but in the case of those who also direct their hatred toward Roman Catholicism, even white Catholics liable to be targeted by hateful propaganda (Michael 2003, 5–6).
There can be differences, however, in certain categories of groups. Militia groups, for example, can be described somewhat differently, as suggested by Mulloy (2008), who cites some common denominators of members of militia groups:
- Conservative outlook. These are worried about repressive government that imposes undesired limitations on them, usually including taxes and gun control.
- Weekend adventurers. Some of the less ideological members are simply those who enjoy dressing in camouflage and “playing soldier” in the woods.
- Libertarian conservatives. These argue against almost all forms of federal government, even if they accept some limited local government as valid.
- Hardcore extremists. Such people harbor an obsessive conviction that the United States, indeed the world, is in the grip of an all-powerful conspiracy (Mulloy 2008, 3–4).
One can also add that militia and militia-like groups tend to be most active in states where there is a high percentage of gun owners, current and retired military personnel, and law enforcement personnel.
For Americans who fall into any of these categories, two events in the 1990s stand out as national tragedies that fueled a great deal of anger and resentment among some Americans who already tended to hold a conspiracy theory of suspicion toward government. The first was the attempted arrest of Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in August 1992. Weaver, a known white supremacist, was arrested for selling sawed-off shotguns to an undercover informant. When he did not appear for his trial, U.S. marshals went to his rural Idaho home to arrest him. The killing of the family dog led to a gun battle in which Weaver’s son Sam was killed, as was a federal marshal. Weaver himself was wounded and his wife was killed. The 11-day siege ended when another known member of a so-called patriot group cooperated with the marshals and convinced Weaver to surrender.
The second event was the disastrous end of the police siege of the Branch Davidian religious movement near Waco, Texas, in February 1993. The decision to force an end to a long stand-off resulted in the death of many members of this religious cult. After a 51-day standoff , the FBI decided to invade the complex. In four hours, over 300 canisters of tear gas were injected into the complex and a fire broke out, which killed over 74 members of the movement, including children. Part of the ensuing controversy was stirred not only by the fact that the events were broadcast throughout the nation but also because many of the reasons cited by the government for its aggressive tactics turned out to be unsupported. For example, there was no evidence for the alleged child abuse, and there was no evidence of drug dealing, much less drug producing laboratories, and no massive stockpiling of weaponry. There is even some suggestion that the government enforcement agency known as the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) wanted to show off a success in Waco in the light of upcoming congressional discussions about the future of the agency and its federal funding.
Most Americans saw these events as isolated incidents involving religious extremists or troubled individuals. But for those inclined to see conspiracies in the modern world, these events are frequently cited as “evidence” of deeper issues and are often used in virulent literature used to stir up hatred and support for extremist agendas.
Watching the Extremists
Even though there are many organizations that compile information on various extremist and hate groups (including, of course, the FBI), there are four main organizations that are widely noted for reliable information on right-wing extremism and are active in attempting to use legal means to limit such activities. These are:
- The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which was founded in 1913 in Chicago by attorney Sigmund Livingston as an organization intended to be a defense agency for Jews in the facing discrimination United States. However, the ADL had been active in organizing information and legal challenges against groups who advocate hatred and/or discrimination against many different minorities. Michael (2003, 15–16) even reports cases of grudging respect for the ADL among some of the groups it has targeted for its effective use of legal challenges (see http://www.adl.org).
- 2. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was founded in 1971 by two lawyers, Morris Dees Jr. and Joseph Levin in Montgomery Alabama. Sometimes considered controversial because of the major fund-raising success of Morris Dees, the charismatic central figure of the SPLC, the organization has nonetheless emerged as one of the most effective in the United States in combating hate groups (Michael 2003, 21–22). SPLC investigations have resulted in “civil suits against many white supremacist groups for their roles in hate crimes. More than 40 individuals and nine major white supremacist organizations were toppled by SPLC suits in the Project’s first 17 years” (see http://www.splcenter.org/).
- 3. Political Research Associates, founded in Chicago in 1981, is “first and foremost a research organization” (Michael 2003, 27). It works to expose movements, institutions, and ideologies that undermine human rights. Two of its affiliates known for their efforts against hate groups are the Center for Democratic Renewal and the Policy Action Network (see http://www.publiceye.org/index.php).
The “Christian Identity” Movement
Among the most explicitly religious groups among the far-right and extremist organizations is the movement known as Christian Identity (variant but related groups appear with names like Church of the Aryan Nation and similar ones). A number of specific groups identify with variations on this train of thought, so it is important to briefly summarize some of the basic ideas encountered in these many versions.
Among the most common ideas that feed the Christian Identity movement ideas are those known as British Israelism or Anglo-Israelism. This is the belief that the white races of Western Europe and especially the Celtic and Germanic peoples are direct descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Thus, the “white” Americans and Commonwealth peoples (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.) are descendants of Israelites and thus have a special status before God.
In the United States, more virulent forms of the Christian Identity movement became deeply anti-Semitic, believing that they had “replaced” the Jews as the true “chosen people of God” and that today’s Jews are “descendants of Satan” (Eatwell 2009).
Among the most dangerous of the ideas circulated among Christian Identity followers is the notion of an impending great war between good and evil, largely to be fought between white people on the one side and all nonwhites aligned with the Jews on the other. Christian Identity adherents believe that there were many other people in the world before God made Adam and Eve, but that Adam and Eve were created white and that whites are therefore the ones that God especially cared for. Eve, however, had sex with one of the pre-Adam peoples (therefore nonwhite). Cain was born from this union and was the ancestor of all nonwhite peoples today. Abel, the true son of Adam, was the further ancestor of all white people.
This is then mixed with (very loose) interpretations of, for example, selected portions of the New Testament Book of Revelation, which speaks (symbolically) of a war between good and evil that will finally bind and destroy evil in the world. Some extremist members within the Christian Identity movement advocate terrorist violence against minorities in the United States, even ahead of the “great war.”
Members of Christian Identity movements have been implicated in violent acts in the United States, including the following:
- Eric Rudolph’s bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and his 1997 bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama
- The burning of synagogues in Sacramento, California, in 1999
- The murder of a gay couple in Redding, California, the same year
- The attempted murder of five individuals at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999
There appear to be international connections as well, such as the Living Hope Church founded in South Africa by Rev. Willie Smith in the late 1990s in reaction to the fall of the Apartheid racist regime there.
The FBI has defined hate crime, sometimes called bias crime, as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/ national origin” (Shively 2005: 2). Almost all states have established criminal penalties for hate crimes. These penalties enhance the severity of punishment for a hate- or bias-motivated crime or establish hate crimes as a new category of crime (a process conceptualized by social scientists as criminalization).
Federal statutes require mandatory reporting of all crime, including hate crime, but there is inconsistency in reporting across all states. Civil rights and immigrant advocates believe that hate crime is unreported partly owing to differences in state and federal laws and their interpretation. Another cause of underreporting is the need for training on how to recognize and classify hate crime. This innovation in law enforcement is subject to further debate. There are lawmakers and lawyers who are not convinced that justice for all will be served by adding hate crime penalties.
Hate crime laws were federally enacted and then adopted by states for four reasons: (1) a bias-motivated crime is viewed as different from a traditional crime because it traumatizes an individual owing to his or her group affiliation; (2) hate crimes place stress on distinct social groups because they view themselves as targets and are subject to more stress than other groups; (3) hate crimes are regarded as particularly heinous because of their underlying motivation and their impact on society; and (4) law enforcement traditionally has not acted forcefully in cases of violence and property crime motivated by hate. Each of these arguments for hate crime laws is examined below.
The creation of hate crime legislation is based on the idea that hate- or bias-motivated crimes are a different type of crime than traditional criminal acts and that they are more serious. The consequences of hate crime include more negative psychological and emotional consequences for victims, increased violence, and greater physical injury. For example, an individual who is robbed and then beaten extensively because of his or her skin color, religion, or sexual preference has, arguably, had a more traumatic experience than an individual who is briefly assaulted, even if injured, and robbed.
Hate crimes have different consequences for communities because they threaten the safety of singled-out groups of people. No one wants to be a crime victim, and a hate crime indicates that members of a particular group are targets for more hate crime. The targeted group has an increased sense of risk of criminal victimization and views the situation as persecution.
Because of the perception that hate crime is more severe than conventional crime, laws have been created to increase penalties. Hate motivation is thought to make a crime more serious. A social message is sent that penalties will be increased in the hope that this type of crime will be deterred by concern about the increased consequences of conviction. For example, adolescents commit acts of vandalism, but the element of hate motivation and emotion is not usually evoked by this act. If the crime was not motivated by bias, such as breaking the windows of an abandoned house, it would carry a lesser punishment. Vandalism motivated by bias, such as painting swastikas and other hate symbols on a house or a church, would be punished more severely.
The last reason for the creation of hate crime laws and penalties is that victims of hate crimes have traditionally received less law enforcement protection. The hate crime aspect of such acts has not been investigated or is underprosecuted. In other words, hate crimes have been prosecuted in the same way as traditional crime or not prosecuted at all. The hate crime statutes in at least 12 states provide for more law enforcement training in the recognition of hate crime to increase the protection of targeted groups. Recently, federal efforts to train all state and local police departments in the documentation of hate crimes have been expanded. Hate crime laws contribute to an understanding of what hate crime is among both law enforcement and the general public. The general public has increasingly understood and accepted the idea that there is a separate category of crime characterized by hate.
Daniel L. Smith-Christopher and Judith Ann Warner
- Barkun, Michael, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
- Eatwell, Roger, Fascism and the Extreme Right. London: Routledge, 2009.
- Eatwell, Roger, and Cas Mudde, Western Democracies and the New Extreme Right. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Hewitt, Christopher, Political Violence and Terrorism in America: A Chronology. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
- Hewitt, Christopher, Understanding Terrorism in American: From the Klan to al Qaeda. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3d ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
- Michael, George, Confronting Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA. London: Routledge, 2003.
- Mulloy, D. J., American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement. London: Routledge, 2008.
- Shively, M., Study of Literature and Legislation on Hate Crime in America. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2005.