When Right-Wing Extremism Moves Mainstream The number of hate groups in the United States continues to rise, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok discusses how the rhetoric of hate groups has increasingly entered the mainstream in the wake of the nation's changing demographics and the election of President Obama.

When Right-Wing Extremism Moves Mainstream

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The radical right caught fire last year as a broad-based, populist anger at political, demographic and economic changes in America ignited an explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation. That finding is published in "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism," a special edition of the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine, Intelligence Report.

The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. My guest, Mark Potok, is the editor of the center's magazine and directs the center's Intelligence Project. Potok reports that angry anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent last year. In 2009, militias and the larger Patriot movement grew with 363 new militias and related groups, an increase of 244 percent.

We're going to talk with Potok about new developments in extremism, including the threats against Democratic congressmen who voted for the health care reform bill. Several congressmen have received death threats, including Bart Stupak of Michigan, who thought the bill didn't do enough to prevent federal funds from being used for abortion but voted for the bill after the president's executive order reaffirming a ban on federal funds for abortion.

The majority whip, James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American congressman, received a fax with the image of a noose. A Tea Party activist posted the address of Virginia Congressman Tom Periello's brother, thinking it was the congressman's address, and suggested that protestors drop by. After the posting, a gas line to the brother's home was cut. A brick was thrown through the office of Louise Slaughter, chair of the House Rules Committee, who also received a voicemail message referring to snipers. Another development this week was the release of an alarming poll.

Mark Potok, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me quote a new Harris poll that says that two-thirds of Republicans think Obama is a socialist; 57 percent think he's a Muslim; 40 percent of Republicans agree with the birthers in their belief that Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not eligible to be president; 38 percent of Republicans say President Obama is doing many of the things that Hitler did; 24 percent of Republicans say Obama may be the Antichrist. What do you hear when you hear that?

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): I hear a very scary situation developing. I mean, the idea that people really have swallowed these stories in such enormous numbers is something remarkable.

I mean, I covered, as a reporter, the militia movement of the 1990s, which really produced an extraordinary amount of criminal violence. And even back then you did not hear this kind of talk so broadly spread through this society. I mean, it really is remarkable to hear this kind of talk, often coming from leaders, from ostensible leaders.

GROSS: Now, where do you think these ideas are coming from, you know, like the birther idea, the idea that Obama's like Hitler or that he's a socialist or a communist, or worse yet, the Antichrist?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think a lot of these ideas do originate on the radical right, but they are also being flogged endlessly by Republican officials. You know, even those who are considered sort of responsible Republicans have by and large completely abstained from any kind of criticism of this talk. So even way back when, when Sarah Palin was talking about Obama setting up death panels and so on, you know, what we heard was a deafening silence from the mainstream of the Republican Party.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you're hearing things from elected politicians that you haven't heard before in terms of extremism?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think right away of Steve King. After a man in Austin, Texas a couple weeks ago flew a plane into an IRS building in Austin, you know, Steve King, who is a congressman, a Republican out of Iowa, basically excused the attack, said, well, you know, the IRS is a terrible thing, if it had been gotten rid of as I thought it should be years ago this never would have happened, which to me sounds an awful lot like saying, you know, if that person wasn't standing in front of the murderer's gun, they never would have died.

You know, it's that kind of thing. I think the other day we also heard, well, in February we heard Tom Tancredo, a former congressman from Colorado. You know, when he addressed the Tea Party convention in Nashville, he made an incredibly off-color - if that's the word - speech in which he talked about the problem, you know, Obama was a socialist and so on, was destroying the country. The problem was that fools had elected him and that what we needed was a literacy test. And you know, this of course in the context of attacking a black president. You know, given our history, where we had literacy tests for something like a century to keep black people from voting, I think that's plainly an openly racist attack.

GROSS: You mentioned Congressman Steve King from Iowa. After the health care vote, he said to a group of anti-health care reform protestors: If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they'd be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let's hope we don't have to do that. Let's beat that other side to a pulp. Let's take them out. Let's chase them down. There's going to be a reckoning.

Now, I doubt he literally means let's punch them out, let's, you know, let's start violence here, yet it is violent rhetoric. Are you hearing that kind of rhetoric a lot from elected leaders who are using violent images in their speeches to protestors?

Mr. POTOK: Yeah, I think we've heard some of that. I think what has been most remarkable, though, is the willingness of politicians to say things that are completely false and have the object of really defaming a particular group of people or the government in general and perhaps the Democratic Party.

So, you know, when a Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, comes out and starts to talk about how Obama in effect is secretly setting up political re-education camps, presumably to turn our children into small Marxist robots, you know, that goes essentially unchallenged.

You know, I suppose there are a few chuckles in the press about it, but there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who hear this woman speak and believe she is telling the truth. So I think that is the kind of thing that's driving a lot of this, and there's also very real reluctance on the part of politicians to make any kind of criticism of these remarks.

You know, some of the violent talk is definitely coming from the real fringes. I mean, a guy named Mike Vanderboegh, for instance, who was a long - an Alabama militia leader, is the person who put up on his Web site over the last few days a whole screed calling on people to throw bricks through the glass windows of Democratic Party offices.

And as we now know, people complied. You know, and we don't hear a lot of condemning of that. We don't hear a lot of condemnation of the incredible remarks that were made towards several congressmen over the weekend during the Tea Party affair, you know, being called all kinds of ethnic slurs and homophobic slurs and so on, being spit on.

GROSS: So the person you just mentioned is a former militia leader. So I guess I'm wondering if you think that the extremist groups like this militia leader have influence that is penetrating into the mainstream?

Mr. POTOK: I think they wouldn't have much influence were it not for the kind of aiding and abetting that they are getting from so many mainstream figures.

You know, we haven't mentioned Glenn Beck yet, but I mean, Glenn Beck, of Fox News of course, spent three shows speculating on whether or not it was so that FEMA had constructed a whole set of secret concentration camps.

Ultimately, in his fourth show, you know, he, Glenn Beck, decided it was not true and quote-unquote debunked it, but the real point was that for three entire shows he hawked this idea. You know, Glenn Beck has close to three million listeners, and a lot of those people follow him religiously, really believe that these things are true.

Now, you know, the idea of FEMA concentration camps goes all the way back to the militias of the '90s and really about 20 years before, into earlier anti-Semitic groups like the Posse Comitatus. You know, but the point is that this is really a far-out idea that has not a scrap of basis in reality but which is plugged again and again, you know, to the point where, as I say, where probably literally millions of Americans, certainly hundreds of thousands, either believe this is true or suspect it may be true.

GROSS: Yeah, and the idea of these FEMA concentration camps is that the true patriots will be rounded up, martial law will be declared, and the patriots will be herded into these secret concentration camps run by FEMA.

Mr. POTOK: That's right, all this in the service of the so-called new world order. You know, the next step in the horrible descent into slavery will be that the United States will be subsumed into some kind of one world government or new world order, you know, and this is a mad -this is the boogeyman of the radical right going back 100 years or more. I mean, these kinds of things were being said about the League of Nations and even before.

But this is a very long-time fear of the radical right, that we are all headed toward being slaves in a sort of Bolshevik one-world government.

GROSS: President Obama has been called a socialist, a communist. Democrats have been accused of staging a government takeover of our lives with health care reform, and I guess I'm wondering if you think that that kind of rhetoric connects at all with the extremist hate groups that you've been following.

Mr. POTOK: I do, because this idea of the government as a socialist entity, as a Marxist entity, I think very much originates in these far radical right circles.

You know, I mentioned Mike Vanderboegh, an Alabama militia man, a few minutes ago. Mike Vanderboegh wrote just a few days ago that the quote, unquote, collectivists who now control the government, you know, better leave gun owners alone, or if they, quote-unquote, wish to continue unfettered oxygen consumption.

In other words, you know, he's saying that the government is run by Marxists, and they better watch it or they will die. You know, that talk gets mediated a bit before it reaches the ostensible mainstream, but yes, this is the kind of idea that animates most of these groups. They really do see the government as an evil enemy.

GROSS: So you've described patriot groups as seeing the government as the enemy. What were the patriot groups like during the administration of George W. Bush?

Mr. POTOK: Well, the patriot groups basically disappeared during the Bush administration. You know, there were a few out there, over 100, but they were quite quiescent. They said very little, and what was not said was, you know, Bush is destroying the nation via the Patriot Act and so on.

It's funny how much protest we hear now about things like the Patriot Act from the radical right. You know, that was said in certain quarters of the radical right. Certain thinkers, certain intellectuals on the extreme right, you know, certainly were critical of the loss of various kinds of civil freedoms, but by and large these groups kept their mouths shut during the Bush administration and did almost nothing.

GROSS: And how do you interpret that?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think that the reality - look, I mean, the first Patriot movement very much saw the Clinton administration, another relatively liberal Democratic administration, as the enemy. Of course they were animated as well by real things like gun control, like Waco.

The radical right today, you know, once again these militia groups are very much, I think, responding to the idea that it's a Democratic administration and that means certain things.

Even in the absence of evidence, they believe that that means the government is definitely coming for our guns. At the same time, I think the proposed health care reforms really ratcheted things up in that it gave the militias an even stronger idea that the government absolutely planned to essentially take over the entire economy, as well as our personal liberties and so on.

You know, I think one other thing probably is worth saying about the militias today. In the 1990s, the enemy of the militia movement was, of course, the federal government. That is still true today, but today, the face of the federal government is the face of a black man. So I think that that really has ratcheted up the whole matter and has introduced more strongly an element of racism into the militias than that which we saw back in the '90s.

You know, I think that Jimmy Carter said not long ago that behind all of this ruckus, behind all this anger and fear and frustration, stands race, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think there are a lot of other elements, but at the end of the day, the biggest thing that is really changing in this country is the fact that we're going through a major demographic evolution.

This country will not be run by white people anymore. So for the first time we're coming close to really being a genuine multi-racial democracy in which no one group predominates.

GROSS: Let's look at your report on the year in hate and extremism. Just give us an overview of the increase in the number of hate and extremist groups in the past year.

Mr. POTOK: The basic overview is that we saw an absolutely astounding growth in all kinds of groups on the radical right, right across the board, really three different kinds of groups. If you put them all together, the number of groups that we cover, that I think are fairly termed extremist groups, went from 1,248 groups in 2008 to 1,753 last year. That's about a 40 percent rise.

It really was quite astounding, and it capped a long, much slower rise in the number of hate groups over the last 10 years or so.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok also edits the center's magazine, Intelligence Report. The current edition is headlined "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Potok. He's the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project and editor of their magazine The Intelligence Report. The current issue is called "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

You say the most dramatic story, in terms of the recent rise in hate and extremist groups has been the rise of the anti-government Patriot movement. So you say there were 363 new Patriot groups in 2009. What is this movement?

Mr. POTOK: The Patriot movement is the larger movement of which militias are essentially the paramilitary wing. So in other words, we've been through this before. The 1990s saw a very large Patriot movement.

GROSS: This was during the Clinton administration.

Mr. POTOK: That's right, during the Clinton administration, and you know, fundamentally these are groups that are not mainly animated by race or by animosity towards Jewish people or gay people. What they are really about is seeing the government as an enemy, as a kind of conspirator against the freedoms of American people.

The other real characteristic of the Patriot movement is how intensely it is motivated by conspiracy theories like the FEMA theory, like the idea that martial law is about to be imposed, you know, and the fundamental idea at the bottom of all of this is that we are headed into a one world government that will destroy our freedoms and so on.

GROSS: And why do you think they came roaring back in the past year?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think there are really two answers to that question. One is a combination of the many factors that we've seen coming together that's driving the growth of all of these groups, and I think those are non-white immigration, the changing demographics of the country, the election of a black man.

It's certainly not all about race though. I mean, there is a lot of anger over the role of the government in the bailouts of the auto industry and the banks, a lot of anger that one could even look at as kind of left-wing populist anger over the idea that these bankers got multi-million-dollar bonuses after screwing the rest of us. So you know, these are some of the things that have played into this and really helped these groups grow in an extraordinary way.

The other piece of it is that there was real organizing done last year, very little noticed, very much under the radar. There was, I think, a seminal meeting held last May in Jekyll Island, Georgia, which is at a particular very fancy resort where the idea of the Federal Reserve was first concocted early last century.

These people, led by a particular group called We The People, an anti-tax group, convened and held a kind of bizarre ceremony in which they purified the room in which the idea for the Fed was come up with and then went on to hold, I think, a very important meeting, in which they talked about how to kind of move this movement forward, move the radical right forward.

One of the interesting things about the meeting was how kind of nondenominational it was. I mean, there were Holocaust deniers there. There were anti-Semites. There were also people who have none of those feelings, who are all about the idea that the federal income tax is unconstitutional.

Many people in tax protest world believe that they are so-called sovereign citizens. This was an idea that was very much a part of the militia movement in the 1990s as well. Well, that idea of sovereign citizenship really comes directly from racist groups in the 1980s and 1970s, which came up with this idea basically that essentially God has handed America to the white man.

So white people are the organic citizens of this country. We're the ones who are connected by God to the land. Then that means that no one can tell us what to do. It's God who gave us this country. There's no government that can tell us to pay taxes or to have drivers licenses or car registrations or any of those things.

The other piece of this idea is that the other people are so-called 14th Amendment citizens - that is, people who were made citizens by the 14th Amendment, which of course made citizens of former slaves. So you know, it has this fundamental racist idea at its base, or at least much of the tax protest movement does.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. He'll be back in the second half of the show. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok edits the center's magazine, Intelligence Report. The current edition is headlined "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. We're talking about the year in hate and extremism, which is the subject of a special edition of the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine Intelligence Report. My guest, Mark Potok, edits the magazine and is the director of the center's Intelligence Project.

The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok reports that in 2009 the radical right caught fire, fueled by the inauguration of an African-American president, changing demographics, the government bailout of banks, and a variety of initiatives by the Obama administration that they see as socialist.

Let's continue our look at the year in hate and extremism and look at the nativist groups. These are - well, you explain what the nativist groups are.

Mr. POTOK: Well, we list a variety of groups as nativist extremist groups, and what we mean by that is these are groups that are not merely essentially engaging in activism designed to restrict immigration in some way -writing letters to congressman or holding rallies or whatever it may be. These are groups that actually go out and either confront or harass in some way people who they think are illegal aliens, so-called. Or people who they think are trying to hire undocumented workers.

So the, what I'm really talking about are the Minutemen-type groups, people who go down to the border in some cases armed and try and interdict, themselves, people crossing the border, or go to day worker sites and confront and harass and, you know, yell ugly things at the people they see there.

The growth in that sector has been remarkable as well. I mean I actually thought that that was probably calming down after several years of growth, but in fact we saw an 80 percent growth in the number of those groups, from about 173 to 309 over the last year. That's by far the biggest growth in the movement weve seen since it really exploded in early 2005, when the Minutemen really took off.

GROSS: Now, you say that virtually all of the vigilante nativist groups appeared in the spring of 2005. What happened then?

Mr. POTOK: What happened was the movement began what was initially called the Tombstone Militias, a very small outfit started in Arizona by a man named Chris Simcox. That went through various iterations, but in April of 2005 something called the Minuteman Project occurred on the border in Arizona, in which a lot of these groups and individuals came together. That was sort of their biggest muster to date.

In the months and years after that, an enormous number of Minutemen groups were created all over the country, not at all only on the border but, you know, all the way up to the Canadian border, for that matter. These groups aren't necessarily connected. There have been a lot of splits in the movement, but they have very similar names. Most of them use the word minutemen in their name.

GROSS: And what do they do on the Mexican border?

Mr. POTOK: Well, what they have done on the Mexican border mainly is to carry out various kinds of so-called citizen patrols. These have ranged from quite benign - people sitting in lawn chairs with binoculars and reporting when they see people crossing the border to the Border Patrol, to others who have actually gone out and held people at gunpoint.

GROSS: So one of the things youve taken note of in your overview of the year in hate and extremism is the high degree of cross-pollination between different sectors of the extremist groups. So what are some of the ideas that are commingling now that used to just be represented by separate groups?

Mr. POTOK: Well, just a couple of years ago, very few of the Patriot groups thought anything about Mexico or what was going on there. But the conspiracy theory, the idea that Mexico is planning to re-conquer the Southwest, really was very big in the nativist groups - the anti-immigration groups. Weve seen in the last year, year and a half, that idea spring right out into the Patriot groups and beyond that, even into some of the Tea Party configurations.

So that is one example. We see conspiracy theories certainly traveling in the other direction as well. The nativists, for example, have very much adopted the idea, or at least many of them have, that there is a new world order conspiracy, that there are concentration camps planned and martial law coming soon. So that's the kind of cross-pollination weve seen. And you know, at this point it's become a kind of wild mix of these ideas.

It's hard to sort out, you know, which ideas are in which sectors of the Tea Party movement or in which sectors of the nativists' extremist movement and so on. You know, but I think there has been a great deal of mixing and I think weve seen that clearly in the Tea Parties as well as some of the other groups.

GROSS: Now, when you say youve heard racism in the Tea Party, are you talking about veiled things or overt statements? What are you talking about?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think sometimes they are veiled - certainly the kind of Obama in white face, Obama as a witch doctor, and so on. You know, and then we get a little more right out there. You know, the idea of, you know, weve got a lion - African lion in the zoo, a lying African in the White House. You know, that kind of thing weve seen a lot of.

You know, another idea that is out there very strongly, I think, and very broadly, is the idea that violence is needed from time to time to defend the republic, so weve seen quite a lot of people either paraphrasing or wearing T-shirts paraphrasing the Thomas Jefferson quote about, you know, from time to time the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants. You know, I just think it is worth remembering that those are the very words that were on the back of Timothy McVeigh's T-shirt on the day that he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

GROSS: Now, the kind of language and the kind of signs that youre talking about, some people would say, look, these are extremist people who have hooked on to the Tea Party, it's not representative of the leadership of the Tea Party or of the majority of people within the Tea Party.

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think that's probably right. I think the Tea Party is a strange mix, but I think what is undeniably true is that you see these kinds of strains running through the Tea Party. I don't think that you can describe the Tea Party as uniformly an extremist group or certainly a group that is racist, nor do I think it really is a group. I mean this is a fairly inchoate movement. They are lots and lots of elements. It's hard to keep up with how it's changing and developing.

But you know, at the end of the day, you know, once again, it was people in the Tea Party crowd who spat on a congressman, who used various racist and homophobic epithets over the weekend. And you know, I dont mean to say that those are all Tea Partiers. I dont think that's true. I think many people in the Tea Party movement in fact are almost victims, are people who have been led to believe that, for instance, any kind of national health care will mean the death of their grandparents, will mean the loss of all kinds of health care and other things. So you know, I think people have been frightened, and that's what you see a lot of, not only in the Tea Parties but in many of these other groups as well.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok also edits the center's magazine Intelligence Report. The current edition is headlined "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Mark Potok. He's director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project and editor of their magazine Intelligence Report. The current issue is called "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

The new Harris poll says that 45 percent of Republicans agree with the birthers and their belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not eligible to be president. Thirty-eight percent say Obama's doing many of the things that Hitler did. Twenty-four percent say he may be the Antichrist.

As somebody who monitors extremist groups and hate groups, how concerned are you about Obama's safety with all of these beliefs that he's doing things that Hitler did and he may be the Antichrist and he's not really even our legal president?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think Obama's safety is a genuine concern. You know, as we well know now, he received Secret Service protection long before any other presidential candidate in our history, and that was right. It is worth remembering that while Obama was still a candidate, before he had even, you know, actually been elected, there were two different racist skinhead plots to assassinate him - one in Denver, one in Tennessee. These were admittedly half-baked plots, but it nevertheless only takes one person to get through.

In addition, we had a guy who was found to be building a dirty bomb - a conventional bomb with radioactive packing, in Maine, which he intended to set off at the inauguration of Obama because he was so upset that he'd been elected. We had yet another person, a lance corporal in the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, also arrested for plotting to assassinate Obama.

The list really goes on and on. I mean, and its remarkable how widespread that idea has become in certain corners. I think many people will remember the reports of a school bus full of second and third grade kids chanting assassinate Obama on the way to school in Idaho some months ago. So you know, these things, I think, are very real concerns. On the other hand, I think it's worth saying that law enforcement has taken this very, very seriously.

You know, we just had someone arrested and charged who wrote a particular poem that suggested the president should be killed. So you know, I think it's a very real concern. It seems to me that officials are taking it very seriously. But you know, that doesnt stop the worry.

GROSS: Are some of these extremist groups less underground than they used to be and more comfortable being above ground, being visible, being out there?

Mr. POTOK: I think so. I think that many of them are kind of coming more out into the open. You know, there is still some trepidation. I know that many of the militia groups, for instance, are extremely loath to let broadcast news reporters anywhere near them. They dont want to be on TV marching around in the woods with their guns and so on. On the other hand though, I think many of the groups are more and more willing to say really remarkable things.

We talked earlier in the show about Mike Vanderboegh, you know, openly suggesting on his Web site that bricks be thrown through the windows of Democratic Party offices and then celebrating that brick throwing. So there's been an awful lot of that.

You know, another case of people really coming out and saying things that weren't said much in the past are really two cases, the case of two neo-Nazi leaders: a man named Hal Turner and another name Bill White. These are both people who had shows - Internet radio shows or, well, no, Turner had an Internet radio show and White had a Web site.

But these are people who routinely did things like identify certain enemies, say so-and-so should be killed, it would be patriotic to kill this person, and then providing that person's address. So that is a kind of in-your-face call for violence that we really hadn't seen much 10, 15 years ago. It's really quite different now.

GROSS: Now, I'm glad you brought that up because then the question arises - is that a criminal offense or not, to call for somebody's death or to imply that they should be hurt in some way and then give their address in a public way?

Mr. POTOK: It's a very close legal question. Let me say that, you know, these calls are not really merely implying that a person should be killed. You know, these have been things like it would be patriotic to kill this human rights lawyer in Canada because he played a certain role in a case up there. Here is his address. You know, in that particular posting the headline was: Kill Richard Warman. Extraordinary stuff.

Now, legally there are two cases going on. One of these people was convicted. Bill White was convicted of threatening a particular set of people. But what he did that made it a fairly easy court case was he personally contacted the people by telephone in addition to posting material on the Internet about them, so those people, the victims, were able to testify and did testify that they were terrified that they saw the threat as what's known in case law as a true threat. In other words, they truly believed that this person would come get them.

GROSS: So where is the line between legal culpability for a death threat and just, you know, colorful language?

Mr. POTOK: Well, there are two ways you can go after people that make these threats. Criminal incitement is a very limited kind of charge. To be found guilty of criminal incitement, you must have incited someone in a kind of immediate way and typically in an excited situation.

You know, in the case of a threat or what's called a true threat in case law, what it really depends on is the idea, would a reasonable person really have believed this was a threat, say, to kill a person? Or would it have been seen by a reasonable person essentially as bar talk, you know, I'd like to kill that son of a gun, that kind of thing?

GROSS: How much are you at the Southern Poverty Law Center following social networking and Web sites? And I'm wondering if its making it easier to follow extremists in hate groups, if its making them more transparent.

Mr. POTOK: Well, it is in some ways making them more transparent. I mean it's remarkable - you know, one thing that is not as important as was once thought are hate Web sites on the Internet. It turns out hate sites really work like all other sites. If the content doesnt change, you know, people go visit them a few times. Essentially they act as a brochure for your group. But when you look at the social networking site, some of the neo-Nazi forums like Stormfront.org, it is really a remarkable thing to see.

First of all, some of them are very large. Stormfront has over 140,000 registered users. You know, this is a site run by a former Klan leader from Alabama. But what is sort of fascinating is you will see discussions of ideology, of organizing in the movement, of questions like is the primary enemy black people or gay people or the Jews or whatever it may be, discussions of should we go - you know, lets go join the Tea Parties. They may not be exactly like us, but we have a lot in common.

So yes, these kinds of sites have made their world much more transparent. In addition, we see sites like New Saxon, which is really, its Facebook for Nazis. And you go up there and you will see these men and women, you know, often looking for love and looking for friends and so on. At the same time, they're posting pictures of themselves standing with AK-47s in front of swastika flags and so on, and in some cases you get remarkable insights. New Saxon has carried quite a number of profiles of American neo-Nazis and other kinds of extremists in the U.S. military, which is quite a frightening thing.

GROSS: Now, there is a demonstration scheduled for April 19th in Washington. It's a Second Amendment march. What is this march about?

Mr. POTOK: Well, just what it says. I mean it is a kind of hardline dont-mess-with-our-guns march. It's an odd thing in the sense that the Obama administration has really never threatened to pass gun control and it seems very clear that there's no interest at all in trying to do that. You know, but what's remarkable about the - so it's a bit remarkable in the first place that the demonstration is happening at all.

It's being planned on a very wide scale. You know, also I think needs to be said about it is that there are now people out there who are very strongly advocating that people come armed to this demonstration as much as they can do that legally. You know, in addition we see all kinds of groups like militia groups and so on saying we're going too.

You know, I'm not suggesting that this is a militia event, but certainly those people will be there, I think in very large numbers. It seems to me the final thing to say about this is, of course, the organizers say we are doing this on April 19th because that is the day that the first shots were fired in Lexington in the Revolutionary War, which is true. At the same time, I think it's very worth remembering that that is also the day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, leaving 168 people dead.

You know, so I think the organizers would angrily reject the idea that somehow they're celebrating what McVeigh did - the murder of those people - and I'm sure they're not. But the reality is, is that, you know, it serves as a reminder of where some of these kinds of angry, angry ideas can lead.

GROSS: Mark Potok, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. POTOK: And thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Mark Potok directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. The center tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups. Potok also edits the center's magazine, Intelligence Report. The current special edition is called "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism."

You'll find links to the articles in that edition on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.

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