After killings, national dialogue on race needed

July 09, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- After years of seeding and feeding, the hate industry hit the jackpot with Benjamin Nathaniel Smith.

Smith, 21, was the suspected gunman in a three-day shooting rampage against blacks, Jews and Asians that left two people dead and nine injured in Illinois and Indiana before he killed himself.

Police say they are investigating why Smith did what he did and whether he acted alone. But it is easy to see that he did not act alone. He had many cheerleaders.

Smith spoke the language of the new white "victimism," a language of "concern for my own people," he said in an interview with an Indiana University television station last October, and a sense that the white man's days were numbered.

Young people don't learn such fear and hatred in a vacuum. They have to be carefully taught. In that effort, Smith and others like him have many tutors.

Smith had a reputation for distributing racist literature in his neighborhood and at college campuses in Illinois and Indiana. He was closely associated with a "white pride" group called the World Church of the Creator and its leader Matthew F. Hale, 27, who law enforcement officials say turned the little group into a fast-growing enterprise.

Before Smith's shooting spree, you could find Mr. Hale's group on the Web, offering a potpourri of misinformation about non-whites as subhuman "mud people" and Jews as conspirators against America. It also called for "RAHOWA," an abbreviation for "racial holy war." The Web site shut down as media calls to Mr. Hale picked up, but I suspect the site will be back once the heat is off.

Smith testified on Mr. Hale's behalf in the law school graduate's battle with Illinois officials who have denied Mr. Hale a law license, even though he has passed the state's bar exam.

Yet, Mr. Hale washes his hands of responsibility for Smith's rampage. "For the same reason the pope in Rome doesn't feel responsible for abortion clinic bombings, I don't feel responsible for these shootings," Mr. Hale told a reporter.

But the pope preaches love for everyone, not just his own race. Members of Mr. Hale's group also have been linked to several attacks or foiled attempts against blacks and Jews, including the 1991 murder in Florida of a black gulf war veteran and the robbery and pistol-whipping in Florida last year of a Jewish video store owner.

"Everyone hates, though few admit it these days," Mr. Hale said on CNN Tuesday. Ah, but, there are many, many levels of hate.

It is one thing to hate pineapple slices on pizza. It is quite another to hate entire groups of people or, to put it in Mr. Hale's terms, to preach "loyalty" to any one race or ethnic group over others.

If Mr. Hale is not responsible for feeding Smith's madness, who is? How about all of the other people who preach the message that white people are a new oppressed class?

That's the language you find on the Web sites of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the hundreds of white hate groups that have been identified around the country by civil rights groups.

Yes, Smith had many cheerleaders. Hate sells, especially if you cloak it in the language of victimization, even white victimization in an overwhelmingly white country.

You hear it from the demagogic radio gasbag who belabors "racial preferences" as if affirmative action were the worst problem facing America.

You hear it from the political opportunists who turn legitimate issues such as welfare reform or school desegregation into thinly veiled racial code words.

And, yes, sometimes you hear it from some of my fellow African-Americans and other nonwhites. The black hater has much in common with the white hater.

And what about those of us who, instead of attacking other groups, simply remain silent while others attack? When justice hangs in the balance, the silent people can be the most dangerous of all. All of them throw kerosene on the flames of anger and hatred in the minds of confused youths.

Yes, the haters hit the jackpot with Smith. Once again, the nation is shocked, just as it is shocked by school shootings.

The high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., led to a spontaneous national dialogue and debate on the roots of school violence. It would be a wonderful tribute to Smith's victims if his rampage led Americans to engage in a long overdue dialogue on the hatred that festers just under the surface of national tranquillity. We need to talk. Our silence is deadly.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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