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The Logic of Extremism

The interaction of extremism and mainstream politics, as well as the bloody crime spree by WCOTC member Benjamin Smith.

The scrawled letter came in a plain white envelope, carrying a Los Angeles postmark and a cheerful strawberry stamp. It was dated "7-4-99" — Independence Day.

But it was anything but cheerful.

"Benjamin Smith is a martyr to the cause: an international Aryan commonwealth," it began. "He isn't even the tip of the iceberg. He's just a grain of sand in a worldwide beachhead. Us Aryans, the world over, haven't yet begun to flex our power or influence. You'll never know where we'll pop up from. We're represented in every strata of society. And our ranks are increasing tenfold every day of every year. The day will surely come when we shall rule and our enemies shall be put in their proper place."

The author — "Aryan and Proud" was the signature — was talking about Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the man who murdered a black former basketball coach and a Korean doctoral student and wounded nine others over the July 4 weekend. Despite the date atop the letter, it was actually postmarked July 8 — four days after Smith, cornered by police at the end his three-day rampage across Illinois and Indiana, shot himself dead.

Was the writer a follower of the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), the neo-Nazi group to which Smith had belonged? Was he or she a friend of Smith or of WCOTC leader Matt Hale? Or was the author simply inspired by Smith's bloodbath?

The answer isn't known. But what is certain is that there are a number of Americans for whom such savagery is a thrill, a sign that "the cause" is indeed advancing. To them, the words of Hale after the slaughter — that Smith had been a "martyr" and that Hale and his party could feel no compassion for the non-whites slain — were inspirational. They had been energized.

That is the logic of extremism.

Hale, Hotelling and the Political Center
While most human beings feel sorry if they see a dog run down, let alone fellow humans senselessly slain, Hale was not speaking to most people. He was talking to a very special constituency: those few among the millions who heard his interviews and agreed.

While most shrank in horror at Hale's violent words and racism, a small number came running toward WCOTC. For them, the killings, and the huge amount of publicity Hale got in the week that followed, were a boon — a way of gathering "proud Aryans" into the revolutionary fold.

Clearly, Hale understands that well.

He didn't care about the shocked feelings of the genteel, the offense felt by the humanitarian — the normal sense of outraged decency that 99% of those who heard him experienced as they stared at his glib visage on their television screens. Hale wasn't speaking to them. He was talking to his people.

Building a Revolutionary Cadre
In 1929, a mathemetician named Harold Hotelling devised a model known as the "Hotelling Theorem." Essentially, it posited the idea that two vendors on a given street will move physically closer to one another, in order to gain the largest possible number of customers (who seek out the closest vendor from their homes).

Lately, the model has been used to describe why candidates in a two-party system come closer and closer in their positions in a bid to capture voters in the center along with those in their particular wing.

But the theorem does not apply to the Matt Hales of the world.

Hale is not engaged in building a mass movement, a populist uprising in which a majority embraces his neo-fascist views. He seeks to create an elite cadre of the violent — a small group of people so committed to extremism that even as a minority party they are capable of creating an insurrection.

Hale is not necessarily interested in appealing to a majority. He is a man who believes that a committed cadre is enough. And for good or for ill, history has proven that his method sometimes works.

Hale is not the only radical rightist who understands this. Jeff Berry, the imperial wizard of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, peppers his rally speeches with violently worded attacks on "n------" and "f------." The result is a visceral public reaction and publicity — attention that helps Berry get his message out to his constituency. Tom Metzger, head of the violently racist White Aryan Resistance, uses similar shock tactics.

The press attention that Hale, Berry and Metzger get helps them deliver their message successfully to a tiny constituency — and that is precisely what they seek. One of those constituents was the newly energized person who wrote the July letter. "As for young Ben Smith," the writer concludes, "he did a noble deed. His spirit shall for ever live in Valhalla."