The election may be behind us but its turbulence is not. Even before the loss of the candidate it openly admired, frustration and resentment were the fuel of the white supremacist movement, judged by both the FBI and Homeland Security as grave terrorist threats to the nation. As groups, they draw attention. But the lesson of recent history is that most of the damage is done by individuals.
Some forty years ago a “lone wolf” named Joseph Paul Franklin drove across the country with an assortment of rifles. He killed Black men, white women who dated them, mixed-race couples and Jews. Franklin was the sniper who severely wounded both civil rights leader Vernon Jordan and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. We wish we could say our new book on his case, The Killer’s Shadow: The FBI’s Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer, is a period piece. But Joseph Paul Franklin’s shadow looms large today.
Before the Internet, white supremacists had to communicate their ideas on paper. In the getaway car of Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, detectives found pages from a 1978 novel entitled The Turner Diaries, a rabidly racist and anti-Semitic urtext of the extreme right that chronicles the exploits of an Aryan supremacy group waging guerrilla war against a repressive American government. Lest one conclude that all such believers are uneducated, Turner was penned by William Luther Pierce III, a physicist who taught at the university level. His next novel, 1989’s Hunter, follows a protagonist who sets out on a campaign to assassinate interracial couples and civil rights advocates and settle “the Jewish question.” Pierce dedicated it to Joseph Paul Franklin.
Today we understand a good deal about they “why” of killers like Franklin, whose 1980 capture came with help from the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, which looks for clues in biography and psychology. Like the vast majority of serial killers of all stripes, Franklin came from an abusive and dysfunctional family environment, and held within him a deep-seated sense of inadequacy warring with an equally powerful feeling of grandiosity and entitlement. This ongoing conflict was triangulated by lack of empathy for other human beings and resentment against society in general for his lack of personal success or privilege. While we have not examined every member of the modern white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements, and the overwhelming majority of them will not commit the kind of violence Franklin did, we feel safe in asserting that this psychic description of Franklin also fits them.
The scary part is not knowing who will actually act. It’s extremely difficult to determine who will be content to march down the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil” (a slogan that dates back to Nazi Germany) and who, like Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C in June 2015, will evolve into “lone wolves” on the lines of Franklin, fulfilling their self-perceived destiny through murderous violence. Franklin, who grew up in the segregated South, had his first epiphany reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which he stole from a local library. This led him to such hate groups as the KKK, National Socialist White People’s Party and the National States Rights Party. Though he was certainly influenced by their ideologies and belief systems, he left all these organizations out of a combination of paranoia—their structures made it easy for investigative agencies to surveil, infiltrate, and develop information—and a sense that they were all talk and no action.
What are the differences between Franklin’s time and our own?
Back then, we all basically received the same news from the mass media. Today, we can choose our own news source and its particular version of the “truth.”
Back then, recruitment was largely by personal distribution of hate literature and individual contacts. Today, the internet is a potent tool for propagating hate-filled speech and ideas without the need for any organizational structure.
In today’s communications and social media environment, the inspiration or call to violence can be scripted by an individual with a national platform or website who sets forth their goals, what type of violence they wish to have carried out, and whom or which group to target. It is then left to the faceless others, the lone wolves, with no direct contact to that person, to carry out the violence.
Words really do matter–be they the blatant screed of an out-and-out hater or the dog whistle of a political leader only too happy to sow anger and divisiveness for personal advantage. And as the election confirmed, our society is so divided that words have entirely different meanings to each segment. To half the population, diversity translates into “social progress.” To the other half, it means, “Not me.”
In this environment, any movement that can give explanation, pride, and hope to those who feel left out and disparaged, and make them feel that there are those lower than them or responsible for their condition, that gives them promise of ascendancy and retribution, is a powerful, dangerous force. And in this fraught atmosphere—when candidates for the highest office in the land need to be asked to repudiate white supremacy—constant awareness and eternal vigilance are required. Merely changing the national leader is not enough to solve the problems of racism, white supremacy, and other forms of extremism and domestic terrorism. Joseph Paul Franklin’s ghost continues to roam our land.