I had been in the US for five years before I encountered my first white supremacist. It happened outside a gas station on a rural back road in Texas, next to a used tire lot that I suspected was a front for skullduggery. We didn’t exchange any words; we just walked past each other, scowling. How did I know he was a white supremacist if we didn’t talk? The “White Power” tattoo on his gut was a dead giveaway.
Subtle, I thought. Still, I wondered if I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’d gotten the tattoos to celebrate youthful racism, but had long since embraced the rainbow of nations. On the other hand, I didn’t think he’d be wandering about shirtless if he didn’t take pride in his hatred. Then there were his three boys: They all had shaved heads and looked incredibly angry.
Yup, I thought. Dude’s a racist.
Up until that point, white power freaks had been almost mythical creatures for me, like unicorns, only less appealing to preteen girls. Of course, I knew that they existed, but overexposure to British TV documentaries about American weirdos in the 1990s, not to mention Russian anti-Americanism in the 2000s, had bred weariness in me, and I had rejected the characterization of America as a land teeming with survivalists, apocalyptic believers, Hitler fans and serial killers long before I moved here. I mean, come on: No place could be that interesting.
On the other hand, it’s undeniable that Americans are themselves quite fascinated by their own loons and lavish upon them the attention they crave. A case in point is the Westboro Baptist Church of “God hates fags” notoriety. It is a repulsive sect, but also miniscule in number – and yet the media constantly reports on their offensive publicity stunts, thus encouraging them. Then there’s that odd pastor with the strange moustache who occasionally pops up to burn a Quran. He’s clearly a flake, but that didn’t stop Obama from asking him to refrain from incinerating the Word of Allah a few years back. The loon, delighted with the attention, went ahead with his bonfire.
These nut jobs represent next to nobody, and reveal little about America. For sure, they are unpleasant people and to be avoided, but that’s about it. I felt the same way about white supremacists – lunatics on the fringe, occasionally dangerous but by and large content to smoke meth and fulminate in their trailers. The days when the KKK could count Democrat senators in their number are long gone.
Sometimes, however, you can be surprised. Since the start of the year there have been some shocking developments in Texas that suggest I have underestimated the racists. When an assistant district attorney was assassinated in January, my reflex thought was that he might have been investigating the Mexican cartels. But at the same time, that didn’t make sense. Two years ago I visited Juarez at the height of the drug violence, and even then life in El Paso, directly across the border, was absurdly peaceful. The drug lords are clever; they knew then that while Obama might have an appetite for adventures in Libya, he wanted nothing to do with the atrocious violence south of his own border. So while the cartels murdered cops and politicians with vicious abandon on Mexican soil, in the US they restricted the carnage to their fellow criminals about whom nobody cares.
Kill a district attorney, though, and you’re going to force exactly the kind of attention the US government would prefer to avoid. And then in March, another Texas DA got killed. Meanwhile, in Colorado a prison warden was assassinated at home last month, and the suspected killer – who was gunned down by the law while fleeing through Texas – was a white power nut. A friend from CBS radio called me, speculating that white supremacists were behind the DA killings also. I was intrigued, but memories of overblown reporting on UK television made me hesitant. But now it turns out that my friend might be right: Law enforcement is openly speculating that the Aryan Brotherhood, the notorious white power gang, is responsible for the Texas murders. More than that, it seems that the Brotherhood has evolved into a full-blown crime syndicate, with interests in drugs and guns as well as race hatred.
If that’s the case, then I may have to revise my opinion about white supremacists. Yes, they are in a minority, but they are no unicorns. Media freak shows aside, history has shown often enough that even a tiny number of extremists can still cause substantial misery for everyone else. Much like the cartoonish buffoon Kim Jong Un, or the murderous fanatics of al-Qaeda, these skinhead freaks may look stupid, they may talk rubbish, but it is foolish to underestimate those who have gone beyond the fear of appearing ridiculous.