The Lesson of Benjamin Smith
One week after my 13"' birthday, white
supremacist Benjamin Smith decided to go hunting. He didn't burden himself
with unnecessary preparations, carrying merely two weapons: a.380
semi-automatic and a.22 caliber handgun. Shortly thereafter, he spotted
his primary targets: Chicago resident Hillel Goldstein and several other
Orthodox Jews, laughing and talking as they walked home from Sabbath
services-clearly an egregious offense in Smith's eyes. He opened fire and
injured six people. Still unsatisfied, he traveled to suburban Skokie-the
home of my high school-and claimed his first victim: African-American
Ricky Byrdsong. The former Northwestern University head basketball coach
was shot dead in front of his two children. (Kashden) The justification
for Smith's three-day rampage? "Anyone who knows the history of this
plague upon humanity who calls themselves Jews will know why I have acted"
More shocking than the sheer cruelty of Smith's acts, however, was the response of the community that supported him.
"Ben's action, you have to understand, [was against] the great enemy we, our people, are facing," one Smith advocate wrote, "and once you realize this enemy, you will understand that Ben served his people well and sacrificed himself for our freedom!" (Kashden)
"[Smith] was made out to be such a `bad' person," another agreed, "[but he] is a true white warrior if you ask me. Before the Jewrica (today's America) was in power, this would have never been a crime. Since when did shooting a beast become a crime?" (Kashden)
The year was 1999-more than six decades since Hitler used an identical philosophy to brainwash a nation and exterminate six million innocent Jews. In men like Smith, the gruesome spirit of the Holocaust lives on. World Church of the Creator, the neo-Nazi organization to which Smith belonged, is widely known to promote the same ideals so detested in America during World War II, though legally protected by the First Amendment. (Kashden) Granted, the group does not possess the power to force innocent Jews into concentration camps or require them to wear yellow stars, but its very existence is sufficient evidence that the anti-Semitic mentality fostered during Hitler's reign of terror has far outlived the demise of its demagogue. Though the Allies' "official" war on genocide may have ended in 1945, today's society is still battling against an equally potent enemy: hate crimes.
During the Holocaust, Hitler had the fear of an entire continent; previous European superpowers blindly gave him carte blanche to invade nation after nation, each time making him promise to stop, each time knowing his track record indicated he would do otherwise. So, too, did he possess outstanding oratory skills, allowing him to preach his philosophies to millions, using their inherent discontent with Germany's economic state to fuel an intense hatred for the Jewish scapegoat. And, most importantly, he had the unflinching support of a dedicated armyan entire generation, poisoned by his twisted ideals in youth academies, otherwise known as the Einsatzgruppen. (Schwarz, "Dictatorships")
Today, the foe is not so formidable-or so it would appear. American white supremacist organizations-the present-day equivalent of the Nazi movement-do not have millions of soldiers at their disposal, nor do they control entire empires. They cannot torture; they cannot pillage; they cannot kill without consequence. Rather, the only freedom the Constitution allows is their right to public expression. They can peacefully demonstrate, publish newsletters, and hold conventions or rallies; their only weapons are words. Surely, mere words cannot possibly pose a significant threat?
History would argue otherwise. Before he was the Furer, Hitler himself was simply a man of words. Throughout his early years, he was the epitome of failure. Rejected from two art schools, he lived in the streets of Austria, making a living posing as an art student, selling his sketches to passers-by. Over time, however, Hitler grew increasingly fascinated with the principles of politics, observing town meetings and government gatherings, and he gradually formed his own opinions as to how a utopian society should function. And so he finally spoke, preaching his philosophy to an audience of less than ten people and quickly discovering his extraordinary eloquence. Once finished, he was rewarded with a standing ovation. Hitler's rise to power had begun-all because of a "simple" speech. (Schwarz)
Matt Hale, World Church of the Creator founder and inspiration for Smith's rampage, was also a man of "simple" speech. Like Hitler, Hale seemed a failure: studying to become a lawyer, he was rejected from the BAR association for his "morally unjust" views. But he refused to abandon his principles. Under the protection of the First Amendment, he spread his ideas, convincing dedicated followers to join his extremist movement. He printed pamphlets, T-shirts, and distributed other forms of propaganda to promote his beliefs. Sure, he didn't amass an army of millions, but his membership was steadily increasing-and nobody spoke out against him. He was an insignificant blip on the radar of society until tragedy struck in July 1999, and it was far too late to halt Smith's actions. (Kashden)
And such is the oxymoronic concept of "harmless" enemy-an initially invisible threat that thrives on the inaction of the masses. Europe fell victim to such a foe during World War II, and modern America has continued such an era of ignorance. Such tolerance for intolerance must be stopped if we can ever hope to extinguish the fires that still burn more than sixty years after Auschwitz and Kristallnacht.
Last year, the Ku Klux Klan opted to parade throughout the primarily Jewish streets of my high school's hometown. The community was livid. Angry residents attended the rally, shouting obscenities at the white-clad marchers as more police were ordered for fear mob justice would intervene where constitutional legalities couldn't. Stones were thrown, arrests were made-and nothing was accomplished. But while some of our parents were among the furious street crowd, many students (and even some residents) gathered in our school's auditorium in an effort to counter the effects of the KKK demonstration. While they carried signs blaring racist remarks, we talked about tolerance and discussed how we could further integrate such ideals into our educational curriculum. We took action against our enemies, and we showed them we couldn't care less about their misguided beliefs.
Many claim that the Holocaust is over, that genocide cannot occur in a society founded on ethics and bound by laws, but if Benjamin Smith has taught us anything, it's that we cannot continue to exist under such a deluded concept of hope. For even in alleged times of tolerance and racial equality, men like Smith can still kill over skin color, and groups like the KKK and the Church of the Creator still have the power to corrupt a new generation-our generation. Thus, it is our responsibility to fearlessly face our extremist enemies-rally to rally, speech to speech, word to word.
"Dictatorships and the Second World War." A Histo of Western Socie Comp. John McKay. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 957-987. Kashden, Morgan. Martyrs, Prisoners, and Heroes of War.
Citizens Against Hate. 20 Apr. 2004 <http://eyeonhate.com/pows/pows6.html>. Schwarz, Christopher (European History Teacher). Personal interview. 21 Apr. 2004.
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