MICHEL MARTIN, host
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, election officials around the country say voters are turning out in droves to vote early. Surveys point to unprecedented voter interest, but some people tell us they still plan to sit the whole thing out. We'll hear from three people who could vote, but say they won't. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about the alleged plot to kill Barack Obama. Authorities this week arrested two young white men in Tennessee, described as neo-Nazi skinheads, who were allegedly planning a killing spree targeting African-Americans that was supposed to culminate in Barack Obama's assassination. This is the second time this year that authorities have made such arrests. Just before the Denver convention where Obama received the Democratic nomination for president, authorities arrested three men described as white supremacists in another plot.
Law-enforcement officials emphasize that Obama was never in any real danger, but we wanted to talk about what these kinds of plots may say about the attitudes of hate groups in the wake of the Obama candidacy. Joining me to talk about this is NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. She's been reporting on hate groups around the country. Also with us is TJ Leyden. He's a former skinhead who now works to educate people about racial tolerance. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.
Mr. TJ LEYDEN (Former Skinhead; Founder, StrHATE Talk Consulting): Thank you.
MARTIN: Dina, let me start with you. Can you tell us any more about this alleged plot and these two young men who were arrested in Tennessee? What do we know about them?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's a kind of a fantastic plot, to be frank. I mean, they wanted to kill African-Americans across the country. They had focused in on a particular school that was prominently African-American, and they wanted to kill some of the students there. And then their idea was to die in this of blaze of glory, attempting to assassinate Obama. And to give you an idea what their plan was, their plan was to put on a white tux and - or top hats - and drive as fast as they could toward Obama, shooting from the windows. That was their plan.
MARTIN: So, not exactly a well-thought out, sophisticated...
TEMPLE-RASTON: Not rocket science, no...
MARTIN: Not rocket science. Were they associated with any known groups? Is there any sense that they had any kind of organized backing for this?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, organized backing, I want to step away from saying that, but they were linked to a group called the Supreme White Alliance, which is a neo-Nazi group. What's interesting about these two guys is they met through the Internet, and this isn't a new - the way that white supremacists have been growing their movement is that people who were completely not connected are finding each other, and in this case what happened is a plot was hatched.
MARTIN: But tell me why you said - you said, I want to back away from any institutionalized backing. And you say that because you want to emphasize that there's no evidence that anyone else - even though they belong to these white-supremacist groups - there's no evidence that anybody else supported them, agreed with them. Is that what you're telling me?
TEMPLE-RASTON: As far as we know now. I mean, what I'm hearing from the federal authorities that I talk to is that these guys were acting alone. There's a local sheriff down in Tennessee who said that they were trying to break the code on this neo-Nazi website that they actually met through. And he says that it's possible that other people are involved, but he's the only one I've heard say anything like that.
MARTIN: TJ, for 15 years you were a part of a group like this, or you recruited for them. From what you know - and of course, we want to emphasize that these two men are innocent until proven guilty, they've been charged but they haven't been brought to trial. So, I think it's always important to emphasize that. But given what we know, what's been made public about the facts of the case, what would be going through these two young men's minds? What would be the motivation for something like this?
Mr. LEYDEN: The motivation is to start a race war. I mean, if you had two white supremacists go to a predominantly black school, and as they were saying, they want to kill 88 of them - being significant with the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 would be HH, or "Heil, Hitler" - I don't think - they may be a part of a bigger conspiracy, but the thing is, you've got to look at the whole mentality in the white-supremacy movement with the lone wolf. You pick a small team, and you commit as much havoc as you can, and in that way there's no peripheral damage to, you know, the controlled groups.
MARTIN: They thought they would be heroes. Well, they thought they were going to die, apparently, according to - they expected to, sort of, die. But what would be the point of that, that they would be martyrs?
Mr. LEYDEN: Oh, yeah, they'd be martyrs. I mean, look at - if you look at the white-supremacy movement, probably the two key people that everybody always talks about and praises constantly is Robert Mathews, who died in a shootout on Whidbey Island in Idaho - I mean, Washington, and who - and Timothy McVeigh.
MARTIN: And you were mentioning that 88 - the two as part of the alleged plot plan to kill 88 African-Americans - you said that that had significance because eight, the eighth letter, "Heil, Hitler." So, but they also allegedly planned to behead 14 of them. Is there - what's the logic of that?
Mr. LEYDEN: Well, there's the 14 words. The 14 words are, we must secure the existence of a race in the future for white children. So, therefore, if you added 88 and 14, that's why you get the word number 102 in the plot.
MARTIN: I see. If you just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and we're talking about hate groups and the alleged assassination plot targeting Barack Obama. Our guests are NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, who's been reporting on hate groups and TJ Leyden. He's a former member of a supremacist group who now works to educate people about racial tolerance and about these groups.
Dina, there was another plot that we mentioned earlier this year, that surfaced just before the Democratic National Convention. There are three men involved in this case. Were there similarities there?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Some. I mean, they were said to be white supremacists, but it's a little bit different. And the authorities almost immediately downplayed that particular plot. These three guys were meth-heads and apparently had been talking a lot to their girlfriends about what they were going to do. They were in Denver at the same time that Barack Obama was, and clearly that's scary. But interestingly, they were not charged with trying to threaten a presidential candidate. They were only charged with drug and gun charges. And I'm thinking that maybe this Tennessee plot, they've added the threatening-of-presidential-candidate charge to this particular plan, as fantastic as it was, to, sort of, send a shot across the bow to white supremacists who think they, you know, might be able to get away with these things, with their harebrained plans.
MARTIN: Dina, you've reported that the law-enforcement groups across the country had been, sort of, monitoring these hate groups to the degree that that is constitutionally permissible - looking at their blogs and communications, and so forth. What has been the reaction of hate groups, white-supremacist groups, to the Obama candidacy?
TEMPLE-RASTON: What's interesting, one of the stories that I've reported has to do with the fact that it created a big a split in the white-supremacist movement. I mean, they're, sort of, your old-time Ku Klux Klan haters, who think that, you know, a black man doesn't deserve to be president and shouldn't even be in the running. And then there's a second, sort of, more progressive group that are hoping that an Obama presidency will actually spark this race war that we were talking about earlier. They think, you know, the worse the country gets, the more whites realize that, you know, blacks are trying to take power, then there will be some sort of a reaction. The people, the spectators on the sidelines, will join the battle, that sort of thing. And that's a really huge split in the movement. David Duke actually gave, sort of, voice to this, and has put it on his website and encouraged people to go out and vote for Obama so that it will rush the race war into being.
MARTIN: TJ, what's your take on this?
Mr. LEYDEN: I completely agree. You had various leaders from national socialist movements - National Alliance, the White Armed Resistance - all emphasize that people should vote for Obama, that they're hoping that his presidency - because anything that goes wrong in his presidency will be blamed on a black man. And the angrier people get, they're thinking that maybe they could recruit more, their numbers will grow, and that if it gets so bad, that if somebody does assassinate him, that on the other turn blacks may retaliate if it's a white supremacist who does it.
MARTIN: And what's supposed to happen in this race war, TJ?
Mr. LEYDEN: Well, in a race war it's just - it'll break down just to the color of your skin and that everybody who - will pick a side, and whoever has the most power will win. And the white racists in this - United States believe that they will have the power.
MARTIN: Like another civil war, for example. And they feel...
Mr. LEYDEN: A civil war - yeah, a civil war. They're hoping that, at the least, what'll happen is the United States will break up into several sovereign countries, and at least that way they'll have their own nation. Black nationalists, white nationalists, Hispanic nationalists have been working for this goal since 1984, to create a segregated America.
MARTIN: On the other hand, I - you both mentioned David Duke is a former, I think, what, grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is also a former candidate for elective office in Louisiana. Looking at his website, he's also critical of John McCain for being a moderate on immigration. So, I wanted to ask each of you, does this create a dilemma? Because apparently some of these supremacist groups don't particularly care for him either. So, Dina?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they see him as a bit of a publicist, I think, for himself and self-aggrandizing. I just wanted to mention one other thing that is of a subtlety in the Obama presidency, or the Obama candidacy, that white supremacists are focusing on. And that is that he's not just African-American. He's mixed race. And this has been something that white supremacists have warned about for years, whether you're a Ku Klux Klan member or whether you're one of the new, more progressive white supremacists. This mixing of the races is something that they think is so awful. And then on top of that, the fact that his father was an immigrant, came here, got an education and then left, plays into this whole narrative they have about immigration and how bad it is for this country. So, it's a mistake, I think, to focus just on the white-supremacist movement looking at Obama as a black candidate. He is fitting into all the bugaboos that they have been talking about for years.
MARTIN: But finally, Dina, there's so much mythology about these groups, and of course, they have an interest in promoting the size of their numbers and so forth. Do we have any sense of just how large these groups, and how active these groups really are?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I can tell you that I know that there are thousands of these white supremacists in Southern California. I was there reporting for a series that we're doing on hate groups, and they're surprised by the uptick in hate crimes that are going on there. Some are white-supremacist crimes. I mean, last year alone, nationally, hate crimes went up one percent, but in Southern California, 28 percent.
MARTIN: TJ, final thought from you? How, I think, attractive are these groups right now, and how active do you think that they are right now?
Mr. LEYDEN: Well, they're extremely active, and they're getting their hands into everything. They're getting it into immigration. They're getting it into any - and into the politics. And hate crimes have been increasing, as we were just talking about, and they see that as a good thing, not as a bad thing.
MARTIN: TJ Leyden is a former skinhead. He's now an anti-racism activist and educator. He joined us from member station KBYU in Provo, Utah. NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joined us from our New York bureau. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
Mr. LEYDEN: Thank you.