Lone Wolves Connected Online: A History of Modern White Supremacy

Lone Wolves Connected Online: A History of Modern White Supremacy

According to a later memo from the Department of Justice: “Robberies and counterfeiting were discussed as ways to finance the movement. Bombings and assassinations were discussed as a means of achieving the desired ends.”

Between 1983 and 1985, white supremacists were behind a nationwide crime spree. C.S.A. members bombed a natural gas pipeline in Arkansas, killed a pawnbroker they mistakenly thought was Jewish and attempted to murder a federal judge and an F.B.I. agent. Members of the Order, a secretive offshoot of the Aryan Nations of which Mr. Beam was rumored to be a part, robbed a series of armored cars in Washington and California. In Denver, they shot a Jewish radio show host to death in his driveway.

As all of this was happening, the online proselytizing ramped up. Mr. Beam began his Liberty Net online bulletin board system in 1984. Shortly before, George P. Dietz had started the first white supremacist bulletin board system, which he referred to as “the only computer bulletin board system and uncontrolled information medium in the United States of America dedicated to the dissemination of historical facts — not fiction!” Then the skinhead leader Tom Metzger began his own bulletin board network, which quickly surpassed both Mr. Beam’s and Mr. Dietz’s sites in popularity. Before most American households even had a computer, the white supremacist movement was highly cyberliterate, deftly using the early internet to spread its message.

Mike German, a 16-year veteran of the F.B.I. who specialized in domestic terrorism, said, “The first time I heard the word email was from neo-Nazi skinheads.”

By 1985, the Justice Department viewed the nationwide network of white supremacists as a threat to national security. Federal prosecutors decided to use the declaration of war at the Aryan Nations World Congress as the basis for an ambitious and highly unusual charge: seditious conspiracy. The U.S. penal code defines the crime as an act in which two or more people “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them.” In a multistate sweep, the F.B.I. arrested Louis Beam and 13 other white supremacist leaders, and took them to Fort Smith, Ark. to be tried.

Chaos descended on the normally quiet working-class town as the trial began in February 1988. The K.K.K. held 15 rallies in front of the federal courthouse, blasting “God Bless America” over loudspeakers. Anti-Klan protesters carried signs reading, “Evil coneheads, go away.” The galleries of the courthouse were packed, while snipers were positioned on the building’s roof. Steve Snyder, an assistant U.S. attorney on the case, remembered taking a handgun to court in his briefcase every day.

Judge Morris Arnold, who now sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, presided over the case and carefully instructed the jury on the complex nature of the charges. According to Judge Arnold, he told them, “The fact that you may think it was impossible for the defendants to overthrow the government is not a defense to the charge.” What mattered, Judge Arnold said, was that the defendants believed they could topple the government and took steps toward that end.

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