Stopping Extremism Before the Crime

August 12, 1999 New York Times

Stopping Extremism Before the Crime

By ABRAHAM H. FOXMAN

In the late 1980's violence by neo-Nazi skinheads was on
the rise across America. At a meeting with Richard
Thornburgh, then the Attorney General, we urged the
Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation to place the skinheads on the F.B.I. watch
list -- to monitor their activities and vigorously apply
the law. The Attorney General did just that, and as a
result violence by neo-Nazi skinheads declined
significantly.

Fast-forward to this past July 4 weekend, when Benjamin
Smith, who had been linked to the white supremacist,
anti-Semitic World Church of the Creator, went on a
shooting rampage, wounding six Jews coming home from
Sabbath services and killing an African-American and an
Asian before committing suicide.

The Anti-Defamation League and other organizations knew
about this group -- we monitored its activities and Web
site, sought to expose it in the news media. After the
July 4 rampage, again we went to the Attorney General,
this time Janet Reno, and asked that a full field
investigation be initiated in keeping with the Attorney
General's "Guidelines on Domestic Security/Terrorism
Investigations."

We believe we had documented examples of violence and
criminal activity perpetrated by members of the World
Church. I believe that if Ms. Reno was not restricted by
certain legal parameters put in place since the
Thornburgh era, she would have acted immediately.
Instead, she said she had to "review whether the group
itself was tied to individual acts." Mr. Smith's
activities on behalf of the World Church of the Creator,
while public and abhorrent, were protected by the First
Amendment, irrespective of his shooting rampage.

Now, in the shootings this week at a Jewish community
center in Los Angeles, we have the worst act of
anti-Semitic violence since the killing of Yankel
Rosenbaum in Crown Heights eight years ago, and we have
a suspect with clear ties to known hate groups.

The suspect, Buford Furrow Jr., who turned himself in
yesterday, had spent considerable time at a compound of
the Aryan Nations, authorities say, and he may have
aspired to the Phineas Priesthood, to which one gains
"membership" by committing violence against nonwhites.

Once again, the information we're getting about the
suspect is coming largely from private groups. This
doesn't mean that the F.B.I. has not been tracking these
hate groups. But the Justice Department and the bureau
are so hamstrung -- by the unpleasant legacy of the
Hoover years, by fears of suits from the American Civil
Liberties Union, by complaints from conservative
lawmakers about avoiding another Randy Weaver fiasco --
that they can't act aggressively. They are unable to
monitor individuals or groups unless a crime has been
committed. They are unable to track hate group Web sites
without a known, specific threat.

"We live in a free and open society," an F.B.I. official
told ABC last night, adding that Congressional and
Justice Department mandates "forbid us from going after"
the groups. The bureau says it is particularly difficult
to investigate lone terrorists who are in the thrall of
extremist ideology but who either don't belong to any
group or are marginal members.

This is too timid an approach given the current rhetoric
of these groups and its ability to inflame their more
unstable adherents. The Constitution provides for the
civil liberties of citizens, but it is not a prescription
for suicide; it should enable us to protect our civil
liberties against those who have no respect for the
nation or would destroy it.

As we're assaulted in such horrendous ways, the time has
come to recalibrate that balance -- to permit law
enforcement not only to go get the man, but also to
prevent the act. If law enforcement agencies should
overstep the line, we should very swiftly take the
authority away. But now is the time to give them that
trust and that capability.

The world is changing rapidly around us. Most of this
change is for the better. With sophisticated technology,
however, come nonconventional weapons that could threaten
us all. With the Internet come new opportunities for
hate-mongers. With globalism come those who may feel left
behind and more embittered.

Changing challenges require a new look at education, at
law enforcement, at the role of the news media. Hatred
can still destroy.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the
Anti-Defamation League.