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?

"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.

"Whites don't have a monopoly on prejudice," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "Different [racial and ethnic] groups now are rubbing elbows as populations grow" - bringing disputes over jobs, schools, and zoning.

Immigration, too, appears to be a major issue influencing relationships among racial and ethnic groups. There have been clashes between volunteer border monitors in the Southwest and those who say such self-styled "vigilantes" encourage anti-immigrant bias.

Some see a parallel between Islamic terrorists led by Osama bin Laden and neo-Nazis, "Identity Christians," and other right-wing extremists linked to hate crimes. "Hating becomes a religious obligation," says Jean Rosenfeld, a researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. "Demonizing the other is a precondition for killing and winning."

"This is the basic apocalyptic scenario," says Dr. Rosenfeld. "The enemy is God's enemy and evil. Eradicating the enemy is God's work and good. War cleanses the polluted world and prepares the ground for the advent of the millennial kingdom of peace and plenty."

For some, this has to do with race or religion. For others, it's homosexuality.

"The gay-marriage thing has freaked out those who see it as a sign of 'end days,' " says Randy Blazak, director of the Hate Crimes Research Network at Portland State University in Oregon.

The underlying conflict over such "values" issues in politics and society has sharpened the tone of public discourse, with opponents characterized as "evil" or "immoral" on talk radio or the Internet.

What's missing today, says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, "is the idea of democracy as compromise, as opposed to all-out victory at any cost." The result, he says, is a divided country and a lack of goodwill exemplified by personal attacks in politics and the media. In turn, that can lead to individual threats and assaults.

Around the country, communities are using traditional and unique ways to head off hateful situations.

In Bozeman, Mont., last month, a member of the white-separatist National Alliance who ran for the school board was trounced at the polls. Turnout was double last year's figures. "The community was incredibly offended by this guy," Martha Collins, a winning candidate, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

And when a virulent gay-basher came to speak in San Francisco, those protesting his hateful rhetoric organized an AIDS charity fundraiser in which people pledged to donate so much for every minute he spoke. When the speaker found out he was inadvertently supporting those he opposed, he left.

In the US Senate, meanwhile, a bipartisan bill introduced last week would strengthen the enforcement and prosecution of hate crimes. A bill in the House would add protection based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability to existing federal hate-crimes legislation addressing violent crimes.

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