By Abraham Cooper
associate dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center
We will never really know whether James Von Brunn would have become a murderer in his 89th year if the Internet had never come into being. After all, the WWII PT Boat captain had already shown extremist and violent tendencies dating back to 1981–long before the Internet was ever conceived– when he brandished a shotgun at a meeting of the Federal Reserve Board. He subsequently served a six-year term for attempted kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon.
Still the question remains: How did Von Brunn morph into a bigot, becoming all consumed by anti-Jewish and anti-Black hatred? We can gain some insight into the mindset of the man by looking at the Web site von Brunn maintained.
Tob Shebbe Goyim Harog! (“Kill the Best of the Gentiles”) is essentially a rip-off of the notorious “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” written by agents of the last Czar of Russia that accuses the Jews of “an age old CONSPIRACY . . . to destroy Western Civilization.” The ‘Protocols’, once described as a warrant for genocide, alleges Jews secretly gather in their houses of worship and invoke Jewish laws and traditions to plot the downfall of their unsuspecting non-Jewish neighbors. The powerful imagery of this canard has inspired every major anti-Semite in the last 100 years to justify murder, mayhem, and genocide.
Meanwhile, Von Brunn’s extreme right-wing associations included the late leader of the National Alliance, William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, a racist novel that sought to provoke a war of the Races in America. The hate novel served as the blueprint for the murderous 1995 domestic terrorist attack against the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Then there was Willis Carto who did everything in his power to mainstream anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in America. And now comes word of Von Brunn’s email exchange with a top Neo-Nazi lawyer in Germany in which von Brunn called hate “natural, normal and necessary.”
This digital Who’s Who of Hate clearly helped supercharge his pre-existing biases. But it may have done much more.
Before the Internet Age, America’s mantra when confronted with bigoted taunts and threats in the Public Square: “The answer to Hate Speech is more speech”. There was an unshakable belief that hate could be marginalized, if not defeated, in the marketplace of ideas.
But all that has changed since a former KKK aide to David Duke posted stormfront.org in 1995. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s newly-released report on Digital Terrorism and Hate is based on 10,000-plus hate and pro-terrorist sites, newsgroups, games, blogs and, increasingly, social networks that constitute the virally growing online subculture of hate. It is a subculture, not about dynamic exchange of ideas, but about incubating, validating and ultimately, empowering bigotry.
The racists who populate this virtual neighborhood moved there because it provides an anonymous safe haven for their bigotry and a safe house for those with the ‘courage’ to plan and carry out violent acts.
And unlike the pre-Internet marketplace of ideas, they need not fear face-to-face public debate or censure from the targets of their hatred, nor marginalized access to the mainstream from a newspaper editor or TV News producer. Instead, they can create dynamic websites designed to ensnare kids as young as 8 or embolden an 89-year-old to murder and mayhem. And while activist groups like the NAACP, the Simon Wiesenthal Center or the Southern Poverty Law Center may go online to sound the alarm, our chances of directly penetrating and debunking the hater’s conspiratorial worldview are slim to none.
Which brings us to one other ominous element that characterizes so many extremist websites: The ‘Lone Wolf’. From the very start of the Digital Era, leaders of hate groups were thrilled by the unprecedented access websites provided to reach in an unassailable way millions of Internet users. But they soon learned that access was not translating into mass movements. So the focus quickly shifted from promoting card-carrying membership in an identifiable group to spawning ‘leaderless resistance’ — individuals like Von Bunn, who are the ticking time bombs in search of a fuse.
Today, Social Networking is all the rage. Facebook alone has over 22 million individual users worldwide. Our research indicates that despite its good-faith effort to weed out racist, anti-Semitic and Homophobic postings, Facebook, YouTube and similar services account for the recent surge of online hate as they struggle with the sheer volume and diversity of hate infecting their viral world. In wake of the murderous attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, law enforcement and officials at museums and public institutions are reviewing security protocols and safety procedures to forestall potential attacks in the future.
Shouldn’t the Internet community finally turn its collective genius and creativity to fight online extremists?
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.