Internet gives youths path to hate groups

Web sites, chat rooms are turned into forums by racists, extremists

Colorado School Shooting

April 22, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Computer-savvy kids in search of a focus for anger and adolescent rebellion can find both among the hundreds of Internet "hate" sites accessible at the click of a mouse.

And the hate groups -- Christian Defense League, White Aryan Resistance, Posse Comitatus and many unprintable others -- are eager to have them.

"The Net has proved to be very useful for these groups in reaching what they see as the future leaders of tomorrow," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in the United States.

"They're interested in recruiting kids who are bright, college-bound," he said, " kids whose parents wouldn't let them be seen dead at a Klan rally."

It's not clear yet that either of the two Littleton, Colo., students who unleashed their anger by firing on classmates and teachers Tuesday were encouraged by any racist hate sites on the Web. But there were indications that racism, hate and the Internet played a role in their crimes.

Some witnesses to the shootings said the young men explicitly targeted black and Hispanic students. Students said the black clothing favored by the suspects' "Trench Coast Mafia" included Nazi insignia. Their attack fell on Adolf Hitler's birthday. And, an America Online Web site purportedly belonging to one of the shooters was said to have been filled with angry threats, bomb diagrams, pidgin German phrases and death imagery.

But even if the Littleton violence proves to have been motivated by other factors, experts on America's hate groups say the Web is making it easy for unhappy teens to find a rationale for their anger and confusion, and for the adult haters to find recruits.

"Do they target kids? Yeah, I think so," said Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's quarterly Intelligence Report. He pointed to a Web site operated by the neo-Nazi "World Church of the Creator," which offers children their own page, called "Creativity for Kids!"

The page's stated purpose is "to help the younger members of the White Race understand our fight. By browsing this page, you have already begun to fight, because KNOWLEDGE really is POWER. Rahowa!" Rahowa stands for "racial holy war."

In January, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 254 active "hate" sites on the Internet, up from 163 only a year before. The numbers change constantly. Sites are abandoned. Others pop up or move. Many are shut down by private Web servers.

David Goldman, founder and director of Hate Watch, a Cambridge, Mass., educational organization that targets "online bigotry," said the number of hate sites has leveled off in recent months. Those good enough to attract and hold visitors often prove too costly, or time-consuming, for their founders to maintain. "Not many people make their living being full-time bigots," Goldman said.

The real growth, and the more worrisome influence, he said, may come from the haters' Internet chat rooms.

The casual, repetitive airing of grotesque ideologies and over-the-top hate language in these online discussions make more conventional bigotry seem almost acceptable by comparison. "That's a frightening consequence," Goldman said.

Adolescents in search of their identity and a belief system can be especially fertile ground for such hatred. "Along comes an organization that says, `You know what? You're right to be angry. You're not the problem. It's not your fault. Who's at fault? It's Them.' Add guns, anger, a bad home life and you have a real volatile mixture," Goldman said.

The haters offer teens symbols, mythology and rituals. "It's a very potent lure to young people. And adults," Goldman said.

In the 1980s, hate groups recruited disaffected working-class children and produced a cadre of street thugs and extremists. That led to "a number of murders and a lot of beer bottles broken over the heads of blacks and gays," Potok said. But it did nothing to help build the organizations.

With the Internet, Potok said, "They are going into the bedrooms of kids wealthy enough to have computers and bright enough to be interested."

"Clearly most kids don't buy it," he said. But a few do.

Despite the dangers posed by these sites, neither Potok nor Goldman advocate that they be shut down or censored. "It's like saying, `I'm never going to allow my teen-age son to see a picture of a naked woman. It's utterly unrealistic and virtually impossible," Potok said.

The answer, they agree, is communication and education.

"We talk to our kids about drugs," Potok said. "It's the same thing with bigotry. You have to tell them, `As a family, we don't agree with these attitudes.' They need to know what their parents think about it."

Fighting hatred, he said, "is tough and tiring, and it doesn't go away. But we have no other choice."

Information: http: //hatewatch. org/.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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