(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.