Hate Crimes Expert on Holocaust Museum Suspect James Von Brunn

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Heidi Beirich
Southern Poverty Law Center
Wednesday, June 10, 2009; 4:30 PM

Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch Blog took your questions about James Von Brunn, the suspect in today's shooting at the Holocaust Museum, and his involvement in the white supremacist movement.

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washingtonpost.com: There's been a slight delay and the session should begin around 5 ET. Thank you for patience and keep sending in questions.

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Heidi Beirich: Hi. I'm Heidi Beirich with the Southern Poverty Law Center here to talk with you about the horrific shootings today at the Holocaust Museum.

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Fairfax, Va.: Are any of his mentioned credentials legit or is this hateful person a wannabe?

Heidi Beirich: He's definitely legitimate. Von Brunn has a decades-long history of extremism and he went to prison in 1981 for trying to kidnap members of the federal reserve that he thought were involved in an anti-Semitic conspiracy.

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Laurel, Md.: DHS issued a report on right-wing extremism a few months ago, and it was vociferously attacked by the right-wing.

Do you think DHS will re-examine the issue now?

Heidi Beirich: The DHS report was savaged unfairly. They definitely pointed out some real problems and trends in terms of domestic terrorism that we are seeing right now. In fact, we've had a few incidents already, like a cop-killing in Pittsburgh by a right wing extremist and two assassination plots against the President.

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Washington, D.C.: In the last two weeks, we've seen the Tiller murder in Kansas and now this awful crime at the Holocaust museum.

Are there any trends in the U.S. that point to a growing participation among violent extremist causes? What is fueling this growth? Is it economy related? Is it related to the fact that our president is not white?

Heidi Beirich: There are several things fueling the growth in domestic terrorism right now. We have the election of the first African-American president and the election of what is perceived by those on the radical right of a far left government. We've seen an uptick in weird conspiracy theories about the government, including that some sectors are planning to round up Americans and put them in concentration camps run by FEMA. These were popular in the 1990s in militia circles and they've come back.

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Arlington, Va.: Is this indicative of a larger problem? It seems like far right wing violence is occurring fairly often lately, or is that just the media making it bigger than it is?

Heidi Beirich: This is not a media phenomenon. We have had two incidents involving cop killings by anti-government extremists, two white supremacist plots against the president and a guy in Maine was actually found, after his wife shot him, to have had the components of a dirty bomb in his home, according to the FBI. There was also a racist rampage by Keith Luke in Massachusetts that involved rape and murder of African immigrants. So these are real things that are sadly occurring.

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Vienna, Va.: Is this guy really 88 years old? At that age a lot of malefactors are sent home from prison because they no longer constitute a threat. How unusual is this?!

Heidi Beirich: It's the first such case that I know of.

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San Francisco: Will law enforcement investigate the suspect's ties to racist groups that advocate the violent overthrow of the US government? Why are so-called experts on the cable shows calling this man a "lone wolf" who "acted alone" when there is clear evidence that his entire life is wrapped up in networks of like-minded groups who call for actions just like his today?

Heidi Beirich: There is no question that the shooter thrived in a world of anti-Semitic and racist theories and that he had connections to hate groups. He even worked for a Holocaust denial bookstore according to his website. Whether what he did today was solely his responsibility remains to be seen and I am sure law enforcement authorities will investigate him thoroughly.

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Washington, D.C.: What a horrible and crazy thing to do. All I can say, as someone who is sitting in the Ag building right now, is I'm glad he didn't take any more drastic measures. The 14th St. wing of the USDA building was evacuated just in case while they swept for bombs. It reminds me of when a plot to bomb the Museum was uncovered in 2002, I suppose the Museum will always be a target for extremists.

Heidi Beirich: Sadly, many Jewish institutions face violence on a regular basis. One of the biggest categories of hate crimes involves anti-Semitic attacks. It is horrific and unacceptable.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Heidi, this is the second murder by a right-wing extremist in two weeks (the other being Scott Roeder's murder of Dr. Tiller). There was also the man who killed several police officers in Pennsylvania earlier this month, who apparently thought that Obama and the so-called "Zionist" government wanted to take away his guns.

As someone who monitors hate-groups, do you think it's accurate to say this is a real spike in right-wing violence?

Heidi Beirich: There is no question we are seeing a spike. You point rightly to the incidents that have made us concerned about domestic terrorism right now. It definitely seems to be on a upward trend.

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Jackson, Miss.: Is the more correct term for this man a "Neo-Nazi" than "white supremacist?" I see a Holocaust denier and Hitler worshipper more than a Klan type. While undeniably opposed to blacks, he seems fixated on AntiSemitism. And a big shout out to Mark, a wealth of information whom I did not know was at SPLC.

Heidi Beirich: I'll send the shout out alone. The truth is with this guy that he melded many ideologies in one--neo-Naziism, Holocaust denial and guttural racism. It was a nasty stew that he celebrated.

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Wheaton, Md.: People have described an "Obama effect" - that Obama's election is increasing the visibility of white supremacist groups. Do you agree with this?

Heidi Beirich: I'm not sure if Obama's election has increased their visibility, but what I do know is that he has lived with more threats than any other presidential candidate in history. In fact, the Secret Service put protection on him earlier than any other candidate ever. And for good reason--there have already been two major assassination plots against him involving confirmed white supremacists.

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Hartford, Conn.: Heidi, as a donor, I receive the Southern Poverty law Center reports, and the name James von Brunn seems familiar to me. Was the SPLC aware of this person?

Heidi Beirich: Thank you for supporting us. He's been in our files for years as someone active in the hate movement--since the 1970s. And we list his website as a hate site.

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Alexandria, Va.: In retrospect, did the incredibly broad brush of the DHS's report (suggesting anyone who supported Ron Paul might be a terrorist) have the effect of crying wolf, and lower our guard against genuine threats, like radical Christians or white supremacists?

Heidi Beirich: The report should have been treated with more respect and not savaged by the far right as completely false.

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Virginia: We don't know this man's exact "logic" yet, but why would a white supremacist be likely to target the Holocaust Museum? Is it general anti-Semitism (that is, a target he considered Jewish) or is it more specifically Holocaust denial? Holocaust denial has been so much in the news the last few days due to President Obama's speeches and the Iranian election (not to mention the Pope's earlier issues with the reinstated cardinal) that I wondered if that was the key here.

Heidi Beirich: I wondered too if the trigger was Obama visiting a concentration camp and denouncing Holocaust denial. I can't be sure, but I would argue that Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are two pieces of the same pie. And he was also a racist.

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Prevention: When events like this happen often one asks what could have been done to prevent this? However, I imagine that because of our legal protections of free speech there is a limit to what authorities can do. Could you explain under what circumstances authorities can take action when they suspect an extremist will carry out violent acts?

Heidi Beirich: The most important thing is for law enforcement to be aware of these groups. It is for that reason that we do LE training and publish the Intelligence Report, which reports on right-wing extremism and is distributed largely to law enforcement.

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Chicago: Has the increase in threats in hate crimes occurred in this calender year or did the up tick begin earlier? Also is there any association between economic conditions and increase in hate crimes?

Heidi Beirich: The relationship between bad economic times and hate crimes is complicated--sometimes they are connected, but not always. The KKK achieved its hey-day in the 1920s before the Great Depression and then declined after the market crash. On hate crimes, we know there were many related directly to the Obama candidacy and presidency.

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San Jose, Calif.: I am wondering if you maintain a list of individuals as well as hate groups?

Heidi Beirich: We provide lists of hate groups, hate websites and antigovernment groups and sites. We do not put out lists of individuals, but we do report about them in our magazine, Intelligence Report, which you can find on our website at splcenter.org.

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San Diego: Would you take a paragraph or two to give a brief synopsis of hate groups in America today--e.g., how many, where located, levels of danger, etc. As a former resident of Idaho, I was well aware of the Richard Butler contingent in Hayden Lake in the 1980s. Are there any similar locations today that seem to draw these folks in?

Heidi Beirich: Sadly, we have been facing a major uptick in the number of hate groups in the US since 2000, from 602 then to 926 in 2008. We argue that what has been driving that is immigration for the most part as most hate groups have been apoplectic about the loss of a white majority in 2042 (according to the census). Now we have a bad economy and the first African-American president adding to the recruiting tools of hate groups.

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Franconia, Va.: How typical is this man? Specifically he seems to be "all talk" and essentially nonviolent for years or decades at a time, then he does something very criminal (convicted for the would-be kidnapping at the Federal Reserve in early 1980s, now this, "allegedly"). I would have thought a person would be more consistently violent or consistently "just" a talker but that isn't the pattern here. Are there a lot of potentially violent guys in their late 80s and early 90s who are likely to do the same, or is his age unusual for someone to actually commit such a crime?

Heidi Beirich: His age makes him an outlier. But we do have many examples of people who looked like talkers for years until they exploded in rage. A good example is Eric Rudolf, the Olympic bomber, who was a raging anti-Semite for most of his life and who then decided to become violent.

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Madison, Wisc.: I read that the Terrorism Task Force would be involved in the investigation. What is the criteria required for them to join an investigation? It seems like we've had two major domestic terrorism events happen in the last few weeks but I don't recall the Terrorism Task Force being involved (at least initially) with investigating Dr. Tiller's assassination. Does this case have obviously recognizable traits that Tiller's did not?

Heidi Beirich: I'm not sure what the exact criteria is, but obviously they would be looking for signs of domestic terrorism. My guess is they are involved in some way with Tiller.

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Oak Hill, Va.: How did this guy have a gun? He was a convicted felon.

Heidi Beirich: It's a good question--I just don't know.

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Washington, D.C.: Other than your organization and the Weisenthal Center, are there other groups that monitor hate sites and hate organizations? Von Brunn was obviously a known crazy, how better can we ID and prosecute these hate mongers and prevent attacks like this from happening? How do we temper that ambition with free speech?

Heidi Beirich: The Anti-Defamation League also does good work on these kinds of folks. Most important is that law enforcement is trained to look for these extremists and that they put a priority on countering domestic terrorism.

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Laurel, Md.: Is there such a thing as left-wing extremist violence (in America); or is this related to the fact that you often see right-leaning bumper stickers and T-shirts with violent slogans on them, but seldom liberal ones?

Heidi Beirich: There is left-wing extremism in the form of ecoterrorism. However, ecoterrorists have never killed anyone. Some of their attacks have come close at times.

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Guns and ammo conspiracy theorists: It's true that what I would call normal folks are terrified that the government is going to take their guns and ammo away, because of Barack Obama. (Reality check: Ironically, he is much more supportive of gun rights than most Democratic presidents of the past since he strongly believes the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms, and supported Scalia's opinion on the DC gun control case.)

At my local Walmart, people who believe this are buying up the ammo to hoard it, much like people hoarded old toilets when there was the conversion to low-flush a few years ago. What can be done to change their minds? Where are they getting this weird conspiracy theory? Right wing radio?

Heidi Beirich: This kind of unwarranted hysteria is certainly being fueled by right-wing commentators because as you say, Obama has said nothing about guns. Perhaps those commentators could be more responsible in their comments?

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Fairfax County, Va.: Do you and others in your line of work find it incredibly stressful? I am so glad you do it but it sounds crushing to look at the worst side of human nature all day. Or is it just like being a homicide detective or anything else of a depressing nature? In any case, thank you very much for your work.

Heidi Beirich: I can be stressful, but it needs to be done. You do need a bit of a thick skin to tolerate it. Some of these folks are just so horrible.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the alleged shooter in this case someone on SPLC's radar or just some random hater with a gun?

Heidi Beirich: We've know about him for years--he has a really long history in the hate movement.

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Arlington, Va.: I notice you have nothing to say about the shooting of two soldiers by an antiwar extremist recently. I suspect because this provides some context to show that these recent killings are the random work of unconnected lunatics. Your theory about a trend or a spike in right-wing violence is based upon a selective reading of the data.

Heidi Beirich: Actually, I was on CNN a few days ago calling that incident domestic terrorism. It's genesis is somewhat different than the case here, but it is terrorism as well. I wish people wouldn't assume that we don't care about that case.

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Re your mention of Eric Rudolf: Worth noting that Eric Rudolf got his start bombing abortion clinics and was a local folk hero as a fugitive for five years, presumably because of sympathy for that crime. Yet you say he was also a raging anti-Semite and of course he later did the Olympic bombing, which he bizarrely saw as related to abortion. We can't draw a neat line between anti-abortion- clinic murders and bombs and the other kinds of domestic terrorism, as I sense some people try to.

Heidi Beirich: No we can't. In the Tiller case, the extremist didn't come from racism but from an antigovernment belief system.

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