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The L.A. Shootings and the Millennium

Chip Berlet
Chip Berlet (File)
A gunman opened fire Aug. 10 in a Los Angeles Jewish community center, wounding five people, including three young children. He later allegedly shot a Filipino American postal worker to death. Based on literature found in his ammo-laden van, suspect Buford O. Furrow may have been motivated in the shootings by the Christian Identity movement, which considers Jews subhuman and promotes other racist views.

Chip Berlet is an authority on right-wing hate groups in the United States, including those that espouse Christian Identity, which he investigates as a senior analyst at Political Research Associates. He online August 17, 1999, to answer your questions about racist organizations and how they may be motivated by the coming millennium. Good morning, and welcome to our discussion on hate groups in America. Our guest today is Chip Berlet, who has studied these groups for a number of years. Thank you for joining us, Chip. Let's get started with our first question.

Washington, D.C.: In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, an individual with ties to militia organizations, discussions arose concerning the extent to which the FBI, and other law enforcement organizations, can actively monitor -i.e., obtain information on meetings, members, rallys, speeches, etc.- American organizations that are seemingly conducting legal activities or exercising their First Amendment rights. Clearly, there are many hate groups within the United States of whose true purpose and objectives is quite clear. Many of these organizations are revitalizing their membership lists through use of the internet. Indeed, the internet, through use of colorful websites, is apparently creating an increased interest in many of the most anti-semitic and racist organizations. Are there any legal prohibitions against law enforcement agencies, whether local, state or federal, taking steps to hack into these sites and cause disruptions? Should there be?

Chip Berlet: I worked as a paralegal investigator for the ACLU suing federal and state agencies for spying on and disrupting dissident groups during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result of several such lawsuits and Congressional hearings, federal agencies were told to abide by the Constitution, and not conduct investigations into protected First Amendment activity unless there was solid evidence of criminal activity. Federal and state authorities do not need more powers, and their hands are not tied by current law.

There is little any government agency can do to stop a person with a powerful weapon who acts as an individual or as part of a small secret cell.

Any attempts by government agencies to crash web sites of hate groups would be illegal, and I believe it should be illegal.

When Political Research Associates first learned of the Klan/Aryan Nations computer BBS network, we put up the first anti-racist BBS in my basement.

Buffalo, NY: Do you see evidence that the various factions of right-wing action - militias, white supremacists, anti-semites, anti-abortion, homophobes - are beginning to come together and act in concert?

Chip Berlet: There is some evidence that this is happening. It is important to see that there are three broad sectors of the political right:

The Christian Right
The Patriot & Militia movements
The Far Right

Only a few people in the Christian Right take part in confrontational activity that threatens democratic discourse. But there is a militant anti-abortion wing that does.

Many of these overlaps happen when persons share an apocalyptic view that sees a coming battle between good and evil.

Mt. Rainier MD: Aside from much better gun control, how can we defang the paramilitaries without abrogating basic freedoms? Do we have a good idea of what kind of person gets drawn to this?

Chip Berlet: I agree that reasonable gun control laws would help.

It used to be that persons who joined these groups were thought to be marginal, a lunatic fringe, but recent social science argues that these people join right-wing populist movements that demonize scapegoats, and that some of them act on these ideological beliefs.

Most hate crimes are committed by persons whho are not members of organized hate groups, and most members of organized hate groups are not any more prone to mental illness than the rest of us.

Good books to read:

Dyer, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning, (New York: Westview, 1997).

Aho, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism, (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1990).

Hamm, Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997).

Neiwert, In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1999).

Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post Viet Nam America, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1994).

I do work at a library... :-) Chip, could you please comment some more on the "apocalyptic battle between good and evil" many right-wing extremists believe is coming? How is it connected (if at all) to the coming millennium and/or biblical prophecies?

Chip Berlet: The poisoned fruit of conspiracist scapegoating is baked into the American apple pie, and the ingredients include destructive versions of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. This is true whether we are studying the sector of the Christian Right that is consciously influenced by Biblical prophecy, or more secularized right-wing movements for which Bible-based apocalypticism and millennialism have faded into unconscious, yet still influential, metaphors.

Apocalypticism and conspiracism are linked throughout US history in a way that is quite distinctive. According to Damian Thompson:

==="Richard Hofstadter was right to emphasise the startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief—the demonisation of opponents, the sense of time running out, and so on. But he stopped short of making a more direct connection between the two. He did not consider the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief."

What sounds like paranoia is the apocalyptic conspiracist narrative used by right wing populist movements to rationalize demonization and scapegoating. This apocalyptic style, both in its broad sense, and in its specific millennialist form, play important ongoing roles in US society. It influences the Christian Right; the xenophobic right, (including the survivalist, patriot, and armed militia movements); and the far right, especially the neonazi version of Christian Identity theology.

The story that is told and retold (with a revolving cast of vilified characters playing the evil “other”) is influenced by the Christian Bible and prophesy, especially in Revelation.

Falls Church, Virginia: Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, on the website of the Freeman Center, wrote that "as the population of Muslims in the United States increases, so does anti-semitism." Yet most if not all hate crimes against Jews come from white supremacists. Can you comment on this, and to what extent does Pipes's assertion itself represent anti-Muslim bias?

Chip Berlet: Pipes has done some good research on conspiracism, but I think his statement reflects an insensitivity toward Muslims and Arab Americans.

Using the same argument, it would be fair to note that as the White population of the US increases, so does anti-Black racism.

Both are unfair. Certainly some Muslims hold antisemitic ideas, but is that any different in any other ethnic group? Furthermore, as noted, most attacks on Jewish institutions in the US are not launched by Muslims or Arabs.

In fact, most hate crimes are carried out by local White male youth between the ages of 15 and 25.

There is much anti-Muslim bias in the US, and I am very critical of the allegations made by such terrorist "experts" as Stephen Emerson. After the Oklahoma City bombing he was pointing at Arabs, while I (and a number of others who had studied the US political right) were pointing at the militias or other US rightist groups.

Actually, McVeigh turned out to have only tangental ties to the militias. He was a neonazi tying to get the militias to move to the right and become more violent.

Columbia, MD: Why is it that these hate groups aren't treated like the "menaces to society" they really are? Is it because Buford Furrow, Benjamin Smith and Matthew Hale are all white men? What if these hate crimes were committed by a group like the Black Panthers -which are by the way non-violent, unless forced to protect themselves-.

Chip Berlet: Well, the Black Panthers were hardly saints, but several studies show that in almost every act of violence ascribed to them, there was a confrontation that resulted from an illegal police or FBI plan to disrupt their work; or the excessive use of force.

I agree that if there was an armed Black hate movement in the US the size of the White hate movement, there would be a greater public outcry. There is little to explain this other than prejudice and deeply-rooted White racism.

Hate is a menace to society, but it often is not the job of law enforcement to eradicate it. We all need to stand up against the tools of the demagog: prejudice, demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism.

School programs such as Facing History and Ourselves can help. We're roughly halfway through our discussion with hate group expert Chip Berlet. You can continue to submit questions.

Mt. Rainier MD: It seems like the Christian churches ought to get a lot more involved in confronting these groups that use Christian symbolism. I don't know any mainstream X'n sect that would agree with these people.

Chip Berlet: There is no support for Christian Identity in either Protestantism or Catholicism.

The National Council of Churches helped publish the first major public study of Christian Identity written by Leonard Zeskind.

Groups such as the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta (a national group) and the Center for New Community in Illinois, work with people of faith to confront hatemongers.

Center for New Community
6429 W. North Ave., Suite 101, Oak Park, IL 60302, 708/848-0319, fax: 708/848-0327 Email:, Website:
A faith-based, rural-urban initiative with a mission to revitalize congregations and communities for genuine social, economic, and political democracy. The Center's "Building Democracy" project is aimed at countering racism, bigotry and religious extremism, and is carried out through education, training, and organizing initiatives.

Center for Democratic Renewal
P.O. Box 50469, Atlanta, GA 30302, 404/221-0025, fax: 404/221-0045
Community-based coalition fighting hate group activity. Has numerous local affiliates. Write for complete resource list. Every civil rights or human relations office should have a copy of the handbook When Hate Groups Come to Town to provide a ready response to incidents of hate-motivated violence or intimidation. Extensive list of publications.

San Jose CA: How much of the increase in the growth of "hate" organizations can be attributed to the fact that immigration is running out of control and the government not only does nothing to stop it but actually seems to promote it at every opportunity?

Chip Berlet: The idea that "immigration is running out of control" is one of the forms of scapegoating used by hate groups to mobilize people.

I call this idea a "Sucker Punch" because it tries to get you to blame your problems on some "Other."

Anti-immigrant claims are a staple of right-wing populism, especially the form called "producerism."

producerism that sees a noble middle class of hard working producers being squeezed by secret elites above, and lazy sinful parasites below. Producerism links a conspiracy theory of history with xenophobia and racism. Fascism is the most virulent form of right wing populism that uses a producerist narrative, so it is no surprise that US neonazis would repackage it in Christian Identity. Jews, in this worldview, are the ultimate puppet-masters among the liberal secret elites who are seen as building a global New World Order. People of color are the lazy parasites gnawing away at society at below, while gays and lesbians, feminists, and abortion providers are the sinful parasites, poisoning the moral order. The approach of the year 2000 serves to heat up millennial expectation and apocalyptic anger in this worldview.

Producerism, however, is embedded in mainstream political reality. Many middle class white men sense their economic and social status is eroding, and they blame the government. For some, there has been a loss of economic status as wealth becomes increasingly polarized in our society. Many white men long for their lost privilege and power in the face of the social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Whether the grievances are real or imaginary, legitimate or illegitimate, the perception is what counts, because it creates a sense of collective identity and motivates them to mobilize. A little earlier you mentioned that there are three "broad sectors" of the Right: the Christian Right, the Patriot & Militia movements and the Far Right. Could you please give us a short description of each and how they interact?

Chip Berlet: Funny you should ask:

Sectors of the US Right - circa 1999

There is much overlap and sectors are not mutually exclusive.

Populist, apocalyptic, and conspiracist styles can be found in several sectors.

Methodologies range from cautious moderation, to activism, to insurgency, to violence.

Forms of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism—vary in each sector

Secular Right

***Corporate Internationalists—Nations should control the flow of people across borders, but not the flow of goods, capital, and profit. Sometimes called the “Rockefeller Republicans.” Globalists.

***Business Nationalists—Multinational corporations erode national sovereignty; nations should enforce borders for people, but also for goods, capital, and profit through trade restrictions. Enlists grassroots allies among Regressive Populists. Anti-Globalists.

***Economic Libertarians—The state disrupts the perfect harmony of the free market system. Modern democracy is essentially congruent with capitalism.

***National Security Militarists—Support US military supremacy and unilateral use of force to protect US national security interests around the world. A major component of Cold War anti-communism.

***Neoconservatives—The egalitarian social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s undermined the national consensus. Intellectual oligarchies and political institutions preserve democracy from mob rule.

Christian Right

***Christian Nationalists—Biblically–defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. America’s greatness as God’s chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Includes some non–Christian cultural conservatives. Overlaps somewhat with Christian theocracy.

[[below here is what I call the Hard Right where anti-democratic tendecies are more common.))

***Christian Theocrats—Christian men are ordained by God to run society. Eurocentric version of Christianity based on early Calvinism. Intrinsically Christian ethnocentric, treating non-Christians as second-class citizens. Implicitly antisemitic. Includes soft dominionists and hardline Reconstructionists.

Xenophobic Right

***Paleoconservatives— Ultra-conservatives and reactionaries. Natural financial oligarchies preserve the republic against democratic mob rule. Usually nativist (White Racial Nationalist), sometimes antisemitic or Christian nationalist. Elitist emphasis is similar to the intellectual conservative revolutionary wing of the European New Right. Often libertarian.

***Regressive Populist Patriots—Secret elites control the government and banks. The government plans repression to enforce elite rule or global collectivism. The patriot and armed militia movements are one response from this sector. Americanist. Often supports Business Nationalism due to its isolationist emphasis. Anti-Globalists, yet support non-interventionist national security militarism.

***White Racial Nationalists—Alien cultures make democracy impossible. Cultural Supremacists argue different races can adopt the dominant (White) culture; Biological Racists argue the immutable integrity of culture, race, and nation. Segregationists want distinct enclaves, Separatists want distinct nations. Americanist. Tribalist emphasis is similar to the race-is-nation wing of the European New Right.

***Far Right—Militant forms of revolutionary right ideology and separatist ethnocentric nationalism. Reject pluralist democracy for an organic oligarchy that unites the homogeneic nation. Conspiracist views of power that are overwhelmingly antisemitic. Home to overt fascists and neonazis.

Mt. Rainier MD: Thanks for the book list! What does Political Research Assoc. do, besides keep tabs on paramilitaries?

Chip Berlet: Actually, we are not really a "watchdog group," but a think tank and archival library that studies the intellectual content and history of anti-democratic groups, primarily on the US political right.

We focus on historic systems of oppression, which in the US include racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism.

We subscribe to 100s of primary periodicals, and have thousands of books from the political right.

We work with activists, journalists, academics, and others who want to understand what motivates people to join movments that seek to deny basic rights to a scapegoated group.

Los Angeles,CA: Why can't Christian Identity,
Aryan Nations, and other hate groups be classified as terrorist organizations by the federal govt. and their leaders and members be prosecuted as terrorists. It seeme to me that if you advocate the implementation of terrorist activities you abrogate your constituional rights to free speech. Also is it possible to link right wing radio talk show hosts as accessories to these acts and hold the radio stations legally responsible that syndicate these programs in much the same way that we now sue tobacco companies and gun manufacturers

Chip Berlet: It is not against the law to call for the violent overthrow of the US government, unless you set the time and have the ability.

Most leaders of hate groups are sly enough to imply what needs to be done in terms of violence, or to praise it after the fact. But few call for specific acts of violence.

It is probably not possible to sue hate radio for helping create a climate where violence flourishes, but I believe they share some responsibility.

Reston VA: Why shouldn't someone be punished equally for assault, murder, etc.? Does it really matter if the victim is in a "select" group. It seems if someone murders someone, they most likely hate them. Therefore, why add another level of difference to society.

Chip Berlet: We punish people differently all the time based on their intent. That is the difference beween 1st degree murder and other charges related to homicide.

Hate crimes laws are not sufficient, more needs to be done, but I think they are a necessary ingredient in fighting bigotry. They send a message to the broader community about where society takes a moral stand on these matters.

Since most perpetrators of hate crimes are young White males, this is part of the counter-argument against the recruiters from the hate groups and the messages they hear at school, or on AM radio with the shock-jock demamgogs.

Washington DC: Don't take this as an insult, but how much difference is there between studying and classifying so-called right-wingers by folks like yourself and their studying and classifying the conspiracies they perceive as being perpetrated by "left-wing totalitarians"?

Chip Berlet: Well, to start, the "conspiracies" the right perceives as being perpetrated by "left-wing totalitarians" are in fact myths. To study how right-wing groups construct and spread these myths helps return debate in a democratic society back to informed consent.

Certainly there are those on the left who believe in conspiracies or who spread oppression, but they are hardly being elected to Congress as are people who are on the political right. Besides monitoring right-wing groups, you have also infiltrated neo-nazi groups. Could you tell us a little about what that was like and how these groups have changed, if at all, between the time you were in them and now?

Chip Berlet: It was creepy to be in meetings were open race hate and antisemitism were voiced.

What used to be a simple theory of racial superiority and allegations of Jewish conspiracy has been largely replaced by more sophisticated ideological theories and justifications.

Good reading:

Raphael S. Ezekiel, The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo–Nazis and Klansmen, (New York: Viking, 1995).

Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile, “White Power, White Pride!” The White Separatist Movement in the United States, (New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997).

Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy, (New York: Plenum, 1996).

Michael Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). Unfortunately we're out of time and must draw our discussion to a close. Thanks to Chip Berlet and all who participated.

© 1999 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive

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