National acrimony and a rise in hate crimes
A flurry of recent incidents, from graffiti to harassment, points to a harsher public discourse.
A recent spate of hate-related incidents around the country has raised a troubling question: Is there something about the mood in the US today - perhaps spurred by Americans dying in combat abroad, plus the cultural and political war at home over issues like same-sex marriage, judgeships, and immigration - that is leading in some instances to threats and attacks?Skip to next paragraph
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"Public discourse has become meaner and more cruel-spirited in general," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who monitors hate groups and extremist activities in the US.
Recent incidents include cross burnings in North Carolina, threats against gay students on an Oregon campus, disruptions of anti-immigration meetings by those charging border vigilantes with racism, anti-Semitic graffiti in the Queens borough of New York, a whites-only group recruiting in Michigan, white separatists harassing Japanese residents in Las Vegas, and a rise in anti-Muslim activity.
Such trends can be difficult to gauge. States and localities use different definitions and reporting requirements. As the subject grows in public consciousness, incidents that may have gone unreported in the past now become known, giving the sense of an increasing problem.
But, says Chip Berlet, an analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., who specializes in hate groups and far-right activity, "I have seen what appears to be an increase in anger toward gay people and immigrants, as well as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories."
Among the quantifiable evidence:
• The number of active hate groups in the US has grown from 474 in 1997 to 762 in 2004, according to the SPLC, and in the past four years the number of hate websites has risen from 366 to 468.
• The FBI reports more than 9,000 hate-crime victims in 2003 (the most recent reporting year). When an estimate of unreported crimes is added in, according to the SPLC, the total may be closer to 50,000 a year.
• The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that civil rights abuses against Muslims rose 49 percent last year (to 1,522 incidents), and bias crimes committed against Muslims went up 52 percent. One example: Over the weekend, someone threw a rock through the glass door of a mosque at The Islamic School of Miami. Earlier in the year, a swastika and an obscenity were spray-painted on the school sign.
• Meanwhile, white-supremacist groups, experiencing the recent demise and disaffection of national leaders, are splintering, creating smaller and potentially more dangerous cells. Experts wonder whether this "leaderless resistance" (as radical right-wing theoreticians call for) will peter out or instead breed more "lone wolf" domestic terrorists - more Timothy McVeighs and Eric Rudolphs.
While most hate crimes are directed against minorities, they increasingly involve minorities against one another.
In Los Angeles County, for example, most officially designated racial hate crimes directed against Latinos are charged to blacks, and vice versa.