The Tipping Point: When Hate Turns To Violence James von Brunn has for years been promoting his white supremacist views on the web. But on Wednesday police say he turned his rhetoric into an act of heinous violence. Von Brunn went into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and allegedly opened fire, fatally shooting security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. Two individuals who study hate groups — Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Randy Blazak, a sociology professor — explain what may have fed von Brunn's vitriol.

The Tipping Point: When Hate Turns To Violence

The Tipping Point: When Hate Turns To Violence

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James von Brunn has for years been promoting his white supremacist views on the web. But on Wednesday police say he turned his rhetoric into an act of heinous violence. Von Brunn went into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and allegedly opened fire, fatally shooting security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. Two individuals who study hate groups — Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Randy Blazak, a sociology professor — explain what may have fed von Brunn's vitriol.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend some time today talking about the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. We don't know whether it was a coincidence or somehow related to the alleged shooter's plans, but a new play about the consequences of bigotry, called "Anne and Emmett" had been set to premiere at the museum the night of the shooting. We'll speak with the author of that play in just a few minutes.

B, Host:

take a shotgun into a crowded museum and kill an innocent man. Von Brunn was apparently well-known among his neighbors and associates for his deep hostility to Jews and blacks. But von Brunn is certainly not the only person in this country who harbors such views, but most don't act on them. So we wanted to understand more, if we can, about the mentality behind the behavior and what triggers racist violence.

So we've called Randy Blazak. He's an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University who studies hate groups. He's with us from Portland. And Mark Potok tracks hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center. He joins us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

P: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Thanks.

MARTIN: Randy, I'm going to go with you first. You've been with us before, and you've talked both about your work in this area and the fact that you have some personal familiarity with hate groups because you grew up in a town where the Klan was active. And I think that the thing that many people want to know is there are plenty of people who seem to want to talk trash, you know, in leaflets, on Web sites or wherever, but do we have any sense of why and when it crosses over into violence? Is there some tipping point that you can tell us?

P: Yeah, that's a really wonderful question because it's often hard to figure out. And the parallel would be with people who do mass shootings, people who would shoot up a mall or their workplace or a restaurant, that these are usually people that have experienced some - and all men, by the way. I think you should point out that these shootings are always committed by men who have experienced some loss or in some point of crisis in their life and essentially want to go out in a blaze of glory. So if we're looking at the sort of egregious mass violence like that, that's always something to look for.

MARTIN: Mark...

P: I would...

MARTIN: ...same question to you. I'm sorry, I was going to say, bring Mark in. And Randy, we'll certainly come back to you. Same question to you. Do you have any sense of why some people cross the line?

MARTIN: Well, I very much agree with the blaze of glory idea. I think, you know, this is the guy who's 88 years old. He's spent four-plus decades in the movement, in the White Nationalist Movement, you know, as a fairly major player, at least at certain points. You know, it seems pretty clear that he was getting near the end of his life. And my own feelings - this is nothing but speculation - is that very likely, he made a decision that by golly, you know, on the way out, he was going to sort of take a few of the enemy with him, and in the process, enter the kind of pantheon of Aryan heroes.

MARTIN: You've been monitoring him since 1981, as I understand.

MARTIN: Well, no. I mean, we really began monitoring groups in general in the early '80s. We were only formed in '71. His history goes back into the late '60s. I know, for instance, that in the very early 1970s, von Brunn was actually an employee briefly of something called Noontide Press, which is kind of the premier Holocaust denial publishing outfit out there.

MARTIN: And what do we know about him? I mean - clearly, people are entitled to have opinions, even ones that we find offensive. But there's a - and he has previously - I mean, he has a criminal record. He apparently attempted to...

MARTIN: Well, he's very, very much a movement, you know, a serious movement person. He was well-known around the movement. By the time this occurred, he was frequently referred to by younger people in the movement as a sort of revered elder. In the years before he attacked the Federal Reserve Board, you know, he came to know many of the leading figures of the radical right, people like Wilmot Robertson and William Pierce, Ben Klassen - a whole array of really well-known names.

In 1981, though, he really burst onto the scene in a huge way because he took a sawed-off shotgun, a hunting knife and a pistol and invaded the Federal Reserve. His idea was that, you know, the Federal Reserve Board is an entity controlled by and for international Jewish bankers. It's essentially part of a plot to destroy Christian white America, and by golly, he was going to take these people prisoner. He was going to get the TV cameras to come in, and he was essentially going to force them to tell all the nefarious things they had done. You know, he was very quickly captured without hurting or actually kidnapping anybody, but he spent six years in prison.

When he got out in '89, you know, he came back to essentially propagandizing, but was, I think, more of a loner than anything else. I mean, people knew of him. He was occasionally at things like Klan rallies, and so on. But he was really more of a kind of Internet propagandist than a real movement activist.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of hate groups in the U.S., and Randy Blazak, an associate professor at Portland State University, who also studies hate groups.

MARTIN: Is there some broader social movement going on that is promoting or supporting this kind of behavior?

On the one hand, a lot of reporters who've reached out to people who knew von Brunn say he was known to be a very isolated, alienated individual, that he was very hard to get along with. He had been married before, but his wife has reported to one news outlet that one of the reasons she left him is that she couldn't take his views. On the other hand, there are other people who are making a connection to, for example, the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a few weeks ago, who performed abortions.

And then they say that there's something going on in kind of the public narrative among a certain group of people that is promoting or enabling this. And I wanted to get your - both of your sense of that. Randy, if you'd start.

P: Well, there has been this trend towards the - what's called the leaderless resistance, moving away from formal organizations because those formal organizations are easier to police by authorities. You just sort of take off the head, and the rest of the organization crumbles. So there has been this rhetoric, and I think it was typified by the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s that, you know, the smaller the group, the better, fueled by "The Turner Diaries," a book that the D.C. shooter was very familiar with, I'm sure.

MARTIN: Who was black.

P: And...

MARTIN: Who's African-American...

P: He's that.

MARTIN: Who was African-American, right?

P: Right.

MARTIN: The D.C. shooter was.

P: No, this one - no, I'm talking about...

MARTIN: Oh, this one, the homeland - the Holocaust Museum...

P: ...he had...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

P: ...he had associated with William Pierce, who is the author of that book and a famous leader of that - of the Nazi movement.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

P: And so, there is that trend. But also, I think its important to point out that even though there is this counterculture - and if you want to call it a movement, you can call it a movement of white supremacists - this ideology is somewhat normalized. You know, it wasn't that long ago that white supremacy was the law of the land. And there are still people who would never don a Klan robe or put on a swastika armband who are sympathetic to the - many of the ideas that these groups hold.

So I think it's problematic to call these folks a few fringe crazies because there are many people who secretly share some of the same beliefs about Jews or about immigration or about minorities. You know, I was watching the coverage on Wednesday from Lou Dobbs on CNN who was talking about acts by Muslims and plots by Muslims. And then he talked about the murder of George Tiller and failed to mention the religion of the man who shot George Tiller, which was Christian.

And I thought that is another example of the normalization of the type of bigotry that ends up at the extreme with people who are willing to do violence to defend their beliefs.

MARTIN: And Mark, would you pick up on that? I mean, Randy makes the point that these - a lot of these views used to be normal, publicly expressed and encoded in the law, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that some people harbor them. But because you track trends, do you have any sense of the trend of the sort of the extent of views as extreme as von Brunn expressed?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I think, obviously, most Americans don't hold the view that, you know, the Jews need killing and all will be well after that is finished. You know, that said, I very much agree with Randy. You know, I think there's been quite a bit of characterization in the media, quite apart from what Dobbs said, of this von Brunn as, you know, a crazy sociopath on the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. And, you know, I would just point out that whatever he may have been personally - loner or alienated man - the reality is that he really does reflect a genuine movement. I mean, there are a lot of people - not a lot. I mean, there are probably couple of hundred thousand people who are connected to the kinds of groups that he was connected to and hold these very, very extreme views.

MARTIN: And I think the question that a lot of people have is - the election results notwithstanding, where a broad sort of multiracial, you know, millions of people from all different backgrounds voted to elect an African-American president. I think the question a lot of people have is what is the trend in that movement?

MARTIN: Well, I mean, what's happened, of course, is that, you know, as a country, given our history, we've taken, I think, obviously, a great leap forward. It's quite a remarkable thing that we've elected a black president. But like so many other sort of social advances in American history and, really, in all history, you know, what happens is you take this great leap forward, and then there is a real backlash.

And I think, you know, listeners need only think back to some of the incidents that happened in the couple of weeks before the actual election, and then especially in the three or four weeks after where we saw a rash of, you know, Obama figures, effigies burned and hung from nooses, where we saw, you know, crosses burned in the yards of Obama supporters, where we saw, you know, God help us, kids in a school bus in Idaho, you know, second and third graders chanting "assassinate Obama."

You know, so that's, you know, more or less, quote-unquote, "mainstream reaction." In addition to that, when you look at movement people, people like von Brunn, it has been quite remarkable. I mean, you know, last December, a man shot to death in Maine by his wife after years of abuse who turned out to have been building a dirty bomb, a radioactive bomb, because - at least his wife told authorities - he was furious about Obama's election.

MARTIN: And finally, Randy, we only have a minute left. I wanted to ask you: Are there - you know, clearly, free speech is a fundamental right in the United States. But are there additional steps that you feel authorities could be taking to address these trends before they get to be destructive, before they result in the kind of tragedy we saw here earlier this week?

P: Well, yes. You have to defend the people's right to believe and publish and meet around any number of issues. But we do know the threat areas. I mean, I think the federal government, through our law enforcement agencies, really know that there's a certain segment that is on the verge, if not planning violence. And so there's ongoing investigations and, you know, these things are happening. But it's just so hard to predict because there are some individuals who react to the news or they react to things that are happening in their lives and see that is the moment to act. And that you never can predict.

MARTIN: Randy Blazak is an associate professor at Portland State University who studies hate groups. He's with us from Portland, Oregon. Mark Potok is a director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The project is dedicated to monitoring hate groups and extremist activity in the U.S. He joined us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

P: My pleasure.

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