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Annual report cites rise in hate groups, but some ask: What is hate?

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of US hate groups has topped 1,000 for the first time. But conservative critics say a too-broad definition of hate stifles legitimate debate.

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Driven by fears about changing demographics, the first black president, and a harrowing economy, “[the] three strands of the radical right – the hatemongers, the nativists and the antigovernment zealots – increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22% rise,” the report says. “That followed a 2008-2009 increase of 40%.”

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Neo-Nazi-like hate groups grew by nearly 10 percent since 2009, to 1002; anti-immigration vigilante groups grew by 3 percent, to 319; and antigovernment “Patriot” groups – defined as “conspiracy-minded organizations that see the federal government as their primary enemy” – grew by 60 percent, to 824. (See the SPLC's “hate map” here.)

Potok notes that the slowdown in the increase of the number of so-called "nativist" anti-immigration groups is probably related to the enactment of tough new measures against illegal immigrants, such as in Arizona. But while legislators in states such as Virginia and Montana have proffered a slew of antifederal legislation this year, the mainstreaming of hard-right issues hasn't dramatically “taken the wind out of the sails” of Patriot groups, he says.

“[Despite] historic Republican gains, the early signs suggest that even as the more mainstream political right strengthens, the radical right has remained highly energized,” the report states.

As evidence, the report points to an 11-day period in January when “a neo-Nazi was arrested headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted after police dismantled a sophisticated anti-personnel weapon; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich., and charged with possessing explosives with unlawful intent. That’s in addition, the same month, to the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, an attack that left six dead and may have had a political dimension.”

While the SPLC's investigations and studies are used by some law enforcement agencies concerned about domestic terrorism, its overall work, its critics on the right say, has taken on an overtly political dimension by giving ideological cover for attacks primarily on white conservatives and by turning the word “patriot” into a euphemism.

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