As soon as authorities identified the alleged culprit in the Sikh Temple shooting spree near Milwaukee, which left six worshipers dead, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) wasted no time capitalizing on the tragedy.
Mark Potok and Heidi Beirich, the dynamic duo of “hate,” fanned out across the airwaves after a search of the SPLC “database” struck gold.
Wade Michael Page, identified by police as the alleged shooter, was no ordinary tattooed musician or gang member. Page wasn’t merely a disgruntled bigot, but a “frustrated” neo-Nazi skinhead who led his own “racist white-power band.” According to Potok and Beirich, “we have been following him since 2000” when he attended “Hammer Fest” — described as the Lollapalooza of skinheads.
The profile of the shooter wasn’t the garden-variety sociopath, such as the alleged Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Eagan Holmes, or Jared Loughner, who recently pleaded guilty to murder charges in the Tuscon, Arizona, shooting that injured Rep. Gabby Giffords, or Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech mass-murderer who single handedly killed 32 and injured 25 others on April 16, 2007.
Under surveillance supposedly for a dozen years, the alleged Sikh killer was a known entity. He was, according to Potok, a major player on the skinhead “scene.”
Not to be outdone by the SPLC, the ADL posted a photo of Page in front of a Nazi flag. The ever-vigilant monitors of “hate” were busy feeding news organizations what they wanted to hear: this alleged killer was special, a lone-wolf terrorist on a hateful killing spree. He may indeed have been just that, but thus far the authorities have been unable to substantiate the shooter’s motive.
Forty-eight hours after the shooting rampage, Morris Dees, the Klan-busting, gold-digging founder of the SPLC, decided to go for the gold:
From: Morris Dees <email@example.com>
Sent: Tue, Aug 7, 2012 12:56 pm
Subject: Tragic Shooting of Sikhs in Wisconsin
August 6, 2012
Dear Friend of the Center,
I was saddened, but not surprised, by the act of terror committed by the white supremacist who murdered six people and critically wounded a police officer at a Sikh temple yesterday in Wisconsin.
As you may have seen in the news, we were the first to identify the gunman, Wade Michael Page, as a neo-Nazi skinhead, a committed racist who has performed with at least two hate rock bands.
Just two months ago, we distributed a special training video about the danger posed by racist skinheads like Page to tens of thousands of law enforcement officers – free of charge. This morning, a number of law enforcement agencies told us that they would be urging their officers to watch it as soon as possible.
The danger, of course, is not confined to one locale. As I’m writing you, we’re reaching out to the Sikh community in Georgia to help them respond to anti-Sikh harassment and violence at school.
Like you, all of us here at the SPLC are keeping the families of the Wisconsin victims in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you for standing with us in our fight against hate and extremism.
With my sincere thanks,
Founder, Southern Poverty Law CenterP.S. For updates on this tragedy, follow our coverage.
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This email from Dees speaks volumes as to the primary aim of groups such as the SPLC. The SPLC isn’t a “public interest” group that raises money to meet their operating costs. It’s a fundraising juggernaut that capitalizes on tragedies like the Sikh shooting incident. Left-wing writers, such as the late Alexander Cockburn and Harper’s Ken Silverstein, have been some of the most outspoken critics of the SPLC’s fundraising practices. The SPLC raises tens of millions of dollars annually, maintains a bank account on the Cayman Islands, and keeps a peculiar investment portfolio as a nonprofit organization. The 2010 990s list the total SPLC assets at $260,547,642. (For more detailed information on the SPLC, see the Social Contract’s special report.)
As Kathy Shaidle points out in “The Great White Dope” on Takimag.com, the alleged culprit in the Sikh Temple shooting fits the preconceived narrative: more Timothy McVeighs are lurking to unleash waves of homicidal terror. The media coverage since the August 5 shooting would lead one to conclude that neo-Nazi skinheads are bursting out of sewers and our Republic is under a state of siege from the “radical right.”
A little perspective is in order.
The FBI reports that skinhead violence accounted for “at least 24 of 38 (63 percent) violent acts attributed to [white nationalist extremists] between 1 January 2007 and 30 September 2008.” This included 17 assaults and 5 murders in a 20-month stretch. This would be the equivalent of a weekend of “urban” violence in Chicago or the District of Columbia. In February 2006, the ADL reported 83 “criminal incidents” during the “several preceding years, including 17 murders, attempted murders, or acts of manslaughter.” In 1993, the New York Times reported that the ADL attributed 28 deaths to “racist skinheads” in a six-year span. Not exactly an epidemic of terrorism in a nation of 300 million with astronomically greater rates of annual urban violent crime and crimes with White victims and non-White perpretrators.
The media coverage of the Sikh shooting triggered a cascade of sensationalistic reportage, particularly after the shooter was identified. Reverse “profiling” would accurately describe much of this coverage. The emphasis of news organizations shifted to understanding the magnitude of “hate groups” and “skinheads” in America and the potential for violence as much as the personal problems of the alleged gunman.
(Contrast this emphasis with the profile of the alleged gunman in the Family Research Council (FRC) shooting. The suspect, who shot a FRC security guard on August 15, was described as a volunteer at an “LGBT center.” According to the Associated Press, the gunman allegedly “criticized” the FRC before wounding the security guard and noted that some are “casting it as a hate crime.” The SPLC posted a one paragraph statement on the day of the shooting: “We’ve seen news of the shooting of a security guard today at the Family Research Council office in Washington, D.C., and are getting media inquiries about it. There are unconfirmed reports that the shooting was ideologically motivated. We condemn all acts of violence and are following the story closely.” It doesn’t look as if the SPLC will be able to fatten their bank account on this incident so don’t expect any media appearances from Potok or Beirich.)
As of mid-afternoon on August 15, there were 1,623 “hits” in Nexis that contains some mention of Wade Michael Page, which includes broadcast transcripts (CNN, NPR), wire stories, and newspaper articles in a search of “news” articles over the past 12 days. When “SPLC,” or “Southern Poverty Law Center,” or “Potok,” or “Beirich” is added to this search, a subset of 460 “hits” arises out of this set of 1,623 “hits” — meaning that over one-fourth of the Sikh coverage mentions the Southern Poverty Law Center or quotes Potok or Beirich as an SPLC representative. (“Hits” are individual news items that include different versions of wire stories, articles, broadcast news segments, and other news program transcripts.)
The Family Research Council shooting and nature of the coverage in comparison to the Sikh Temple shooting reveal bias on the part of the media. A Nexis search of same-day overall coverage (limiting the coverage to the dates of the shooting, August 5 for the Sikh incident, August 15 for the FRC incident) turns up 129 “hits” in Nexis of the FRC shooting and 334 “hits” for the Sikh shooting. The coverage was considerably greater for the Sikh incident, and one could argue that the fatalities involved — 6 deaths when compared to a single injury and no fatalities in the FRC shooting — prompted more attention on the part of the media. However, it isn’t the full story.
Another likely overlapping explanation is that the media early on in the Sikh Temple shooting suspected a possible “hate crime” (the possible choice of target being “foreigners” or the Sikhs likely being mistaken as “Muslims”) rather than a nondescript rampage killing or mass-shooting spree. In a “breaking news” cycle, when factoring in some indicator of a “hate crime” (white culprit, possible extremist, ties to “white supremacists,” ethnic or religious minority target), all things being equal, given the liberal tilt of the media, the overall coverage will predictably be greater with a heavy emphasis on the culprit’s involvement with a “subculture of hate.”
News organizations thrive on this sort of “news” — a sinister villain portrayed with what seems to be unquestionable motives, packaged as a “disturbing trend” or “wave,” “upsurge” or “elevated” national menace, followed by grim editorials and op/eds similar to the Boston Globe: “A Culture of Hate: Domestic Terrorism Can be Seen as a Battle Over Our National Soul” or NPR’s “The Anatomy of a Hate Group” on “Talk of the Nation,” or CNN’s “‘Swimming upstream,’ white supremacist groups still strong.”
Potok hit the airwaves within 24 hours of the Sikh Temple shooting and appeared on several broadcast programs, including CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer and NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show.” What he offered in terms of analysis or insights about Wade Michael Page is little more than vague information: the alleged shooter was a member of a skinhead band, had tattoos, attended “Hammer Fest,” tried to purchase something from the National Alliance in 2000, set up his own band, and so forth.
However, Potok and Beirich’s appearances on various news shows were less about what they knew of Page than what they could extrapolate (e.g. hype) from this particular incident. Consider Beirich’s reply to Erin Burnett on CNN, August 7, when asked, “how many people in general are you tracking?” Beirich:
Well, there’s a shocking number, actually, of individuals with connections to the hate movement that we have captured information on, more than 20,000 by now and Wade Page wasn’t so rare. There’s probably hundreds, several hundred “skinheads” that look like him or are tattooed up like him and have connections to groups like this. It may even actually be in the thousands. So although he looks very, very scary, you know, to the average American, within this world, he’s just one of many. (My emphasis)
This answer is precisely what journalists or broadcast anchors seek. A reporter with a minimal level of skepticism, however, would inquire: “Who are these individuals with ‘connections’ to the ‘hate movement?’ What’s their profile and whom would it include? Professors? Lawyers? Musicians? Priests? Bikers? Authors? What are these connections precisely? What encompasses the ‘hate movement?’ What’s the basis of your claim?”
Consider Burnett’s follow-up question:
Wow. So you’re saying there are thousands of people who are sending the sort of red flags that Wade Page has been sending to you. I know for — about a dozen years you tracked him.
And Beirich’s evasive reply:
Yes, we have been following him since 2000, which is when he started hanging out with neo-Nazis and ended up on the music scene. He attended a thing called ‘Hammer Fest’ put on by this ‘Hammerskin Nation’ in 2000 and then of course he went on to, you know, form his own band, play in other bands and make connections with a whole host of groups. The ‘Hammerskins,’ the American Front, as your other guest just said. So he was very, very active in the skinhead movement for a long time.
Notice that the emphasis in Beirich’s reply shifted exclusively to Page. The “thousands who send up red flags” part of Burnett’s question was conveniently ignored and unanswered. The obvious explanation is that Beirich wanted to steer the conversation away from detailing the SPLC’s operational methods and avoid the risk of exposure in stating an exaggeration or unsubstantiated charge.
When the “news” fits a cookie-cutter narrative such as a “hate crime,” the mass media are more interested in seeking brief quotes cultivated from their selected source portrayed as an “authority” on the subject under discussion. Rather than peel away at the onion one layer at a time, ferreting out the truth and proper context, more often than not journalists uncritically sponge-up anticipated stock answers from a source as long as it fits preconceived biases or provided it jibes with the running narrative.
The sociological reality is that the skinhead movement is a subculture within a subculture with countercultural characteristics: tattoos, roughneck reputation or outlaw type demeanor, ritualistic signs and symbols, dislike of minorities and “foreigners,” hard-edged metal music, unconventional or dissident political and social views, etc. Hunter Thompson’s classic account of Hell’s Angels as an outlaw motorcycle club, where members, in chain-wielding encounters, would fight their way out of bars, pulverizing any perceived threat — with one Hell’s Angel quoted as telling a police officer, “people will just have to learn to stay out of our way” — is probably more of a societal menace than most skinheads. Subcultures, by their very nature, remain at odds with conventional norms of behavior.
What’s significant about the Sikh shooting incident is that the nature of the crime self-servingly justifies the SPLC and ADL’s own existence. The lone gunman (however unhinged) becomes the lone-wolf terrorist as soon as some ideological motive can be established regardless if such a motive was the actual driving force behind the shooting. Practical considerations, such as the shooter’s overall mindset (level of depression, psychopathology, etc.), often take a back seat for no other reason than the quest to create scapegoats and sinister villains out of anyone to the right of National Review.
Potok admitted on the Diane Rehm show that ideology plays a key role in pigeonholing a suspected “hate criminal.” According to Potok, “the definition is unrelated to any kind of criminality or violence. It’s about ideology.”
Ideology! It’s important to keep in mind what Mark Krikorian once noted about the accusation of racism for political ends:
The accusation of racism is the most serious charge you can make against someone in modern America, comparable to accusations in the past of being a leper, a witch or a communist. The charge of racism is so incendiary that even mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer felt it necessary to deny that his crimes were motivated by it. This man, a cannibalistic, necrophiliac killer, went to great lengths to assure a relative of one of his victims that, in her words, quote, “He was not a prejudiced person. It wasn’t out of race that he killed these young men,” unquote.
In a continual quest to marginalize the Right as “radical Right,” “domestic terrorists,” “racists,” “anti-Semites,” or “extremists,” the SPLC, ADL, and other left-wing organizations will use their media clout to demonize their opponents. The reality is that the “Far Right” is a small, fractured movement that wields no power or influence in American society and is largely cash-strapped. One of the biggest handicaps is the lack of resources to fund right-wing activists. However, the “extreme Right” remains fertile fodder for fundraisers such as Dees and the SPLC.
George Michael, author of Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, explains that the concept of a lone-wolf terrorist isn’t limited to the Far Right. Ecoterrorists, militant Animal Rights activists, and Islamic extremists have utilized leaderless resistance strategies in launching terrorist acts. Michael reflects on the Far Right as a political force in America:
As a highly stigmatized and marginalized movement, the extreme Right faces significant repression, despite the long tradition of civil liberties in the United States…. While it is axiomatic that terrorism is carried out by extremists, the vast majority of extremists are not terrorists. This presents a conundrum to authorities. Because of First Amendment protections, the government does not officially have the authority to disband groups just because they espouse unpopular ideas. From a comparative legal perspective, the US government appears to be more constrained than other governments in responding to political extremism. What is often ignored, though, is that private nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have inserted themselves into this area of public policy and have done much to fill the void. In essence, the response to right-wing extremism in the United States is a joint effort by the government and private watchdog groups.
Of course, the two most prominent NGOs in this area are the SPLC and the ADL–-both Jewish activist organizations.
Wolf Blitzer posed an interesting question to Potok in his CNN interview on August 7, asking about the role of private groups in collecting “a lot of information” on people of organizations “simply because they have unpleasant views,” unlike law enforcement. Potok responded,
You know, we, as a private organization, with obviously no police powers and no prosecutorial powers can collect any kind of information we want that we’re able to get. So, you know, we are able to do a much more kind of political collecting. So, we collect information on the groups these individuals are associated with, the statements they’ve made, perhaps, in some cases the bands they’ve played in.
And, you know, when a criminal case develops, very typically that is the moment when, perhaps, we get a call from law enforcement, from a federal agency, asking us do we know about a certain person who’s just been arrested. Can we fill them in on their organizational/political background? So, in a sense, it’s a kind of partnership that works quite well.
We can’t prosecute people. So, you know, this information we collect can’t be used in nefarious ways to, you know, destroy people simply because they have heterodox views. (My emphasis)
Tell that to editors, such as Kevin Lamb, the former managing editor of Human Events, whose only crime when Heidi Beirich proactively cost him his career as an editor was freely espousing his First Amendment rights. Or James Lubinskas, who was forced from his job at U.S. English after the SPLC’s involvement. Or SPLC’s repeated attempts to pressure The Washington Times into firing Robert Stacy McCain and Fran Coombs. Or for that matter the on-campus pressure tactics that Beirich placed on Cal State University–Long Beach administrators and the Psychology Department to fire Psychologist and TOO Editor Kevin MacDonald.
SPLC’s “Hatewatch” column routinely brags about the targets of their own hate and vilification under the auspices of “keeping an eye on the Radical Right.” As the SPLC’s list of targets across the Right half of the political spectrum continues to expand, the selection of specific targets continues to broaden, including labeling the Family Research Council — the latest probable target of “hate” and “intolerance” — a “hate group.”
Cooper Sterling [email him] is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area.