Sikh temple shooting: A call to take extremists seriously

—Jeannine Bell

At a time when the United States has elected a black president, many Americans tend to dismiss racial extremists. This makes sense. The Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other ideologically committed racists with their uniforms, rhetoric and violence seem so passé, remnants of a long dead pre-civil rights era. In the last 30 years when the Ku Klux Klan has held marches in cities around the country, protesters outnumber marching Klan members and police are called out to protect the extremists from protesters’ violence.

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Every so often there is a tragic reminder of the fact that extremists still exist, and of the danger they pose. On Sunday, August 4, 2012, Wade M. Page, a member of various racist rock bands, walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire. Six Sikhs worshipping at the temple were killed and three others were wounded.

There is a clear connection between Page’s massacre at the temple and his music. White supremacist organizations use racist rock bands as a way of recruiting and furthering their message. The message in the music of racist rock bands is frequently one of hatred and violent eradication those who “threaten” blacks, Jews and other minorities.  According to news reports, Page played in the Blue Devils. One of the Blue Devils songs, “White Victory” included the lines: “Now I’ll fight for my race and nation/Sieg Heil!”

As a society we should be much more aware of the threat posed by extremist groups.  Though their numbers are small, the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that membership in extremist groups is growing. Hate crime scholars know that extremist groups do not commit the majority of hate crimes, but what has yet to be acknowledged is that when the deadliest attacks occur, often the culprit is a member of an extremist group. Recent examples include Benjamin Smith, whose multistate state killing spree led to the death of former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong in Illinois, and graduate student Won-Joon Yoon in Bloomington, Indiana. Smith was a member of the World Church of the Creator, a neo-Nazi group. The killers of James Byrd—a black man who was dragged behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas—were members of racist prison gangs.

We don’t need hate crime legislation to punish these high profile attacks. Rather, hate crime legislation is needed for the thousands of other bias-motivated attacks that take place without national scrutiny. What might make a difference in preventing horrible hate crime murders like those that took place in Wisconsin is for the government, and for everyone else, to take seriously the dangerous threat posed by racial extremists.

Jeannine Bell is Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana. Bell has written extensively on hate crime and criminal justice issues. Her newest book, Hate Thy Neighbor (forthcoming from NYU Press), explores hate crime in integrating neighborhoods.

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