‘Whoever you are—if you’re Jewish, Catholic, a member of a minority group— there’s a hate site out there that’s against you.’
On an early June evening at the Samuel S. Seward High School in Florida, New York, a Hudson Valley village of 3,000 in semi-rural Orange County, about two dozen parents in casual attire saunter into the monthly PTA meeting. On the agenda are discussions of the upcoming ice cream social, district garage sale, and Florida Family Fun Day. But it appears that most people have turned out for the panel of speakers the PTA has assembled to talk about a less festive topic—the dangers of the Internet.
Florida may look like an idealized, Hollywood small town, with a main street dotted by delicatessens, a bar, a Chinese restaurant, and a Christian bookstore, but parents here are worried that technology is bringing real-world problems to the community. During the school year, three Florida 6th graders visiting a chat room from their home computers encountered a man who asked to meet them offline. Though the high school uses a filter to block students from sexually explicit sites on the 80 computers in its classrooms, labs, and library, parents are uneasy. So, they listen closely as the county district attorney and representatives from the state attorney general’s office, the New York State Police Major Crimes Office, and the FBI confirm their worst fears about pornographic Web sites, X-rated chat rooms, and sexual predators.
Then Jack Hayes, a slim man with gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a mild manner, steps to the podium. “Whoever you are—if you’re Jewish, Catholic, a member of a minority group, a member of a political party—there’s a hate site out there that’s against you,” announces Hayes, a New York state trooper. The most dangerous sites do not broadcast their hate, he suggests, but hide their vitriol in legitimate-looking articles—the kind of articles kids download as research for reports. “Children are the biggest target group,” he tells the parents, the color in his ruddy face deepening. “They feel they have to get them at an early age.”
Hayes goes on to encourage educators in the audience to examine the hate sites closely in classroom work and try to help kids think critically about the content. He ends by urging anyone who wants to work with him on this issue to get in touch.
Afterward, the parents ask the panel a few questions: How do sexual predators get kids’ e-mail addresses? How should we monitor children’s Internet use? No one has any questions for Jack Hayes. Although the PTA later sends him a thank-you letter, none of the parents contacts him for more information.
After Jack Hayes stumbled upon a neo- Nazi Internet site, he realized kids could, too.
Type the words “white people” into an Internet search engine, and you will discover an array of Web sites alleging the superiority of the Caucasian race, such as those maintained by the National Association for the Advancement of White People, the National Socialist White People’s Party, Skinheads of the Racial Holy War, and various branches of the Ku Klux Klan. Racist clichés and imagery fill these sites, including jackboot icons, twirling flaming swords, and skinhead music lyrics.
More alarming, however, is the number of hate group sites whose malevolence is hidden. For example, the home page for the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization, features a painting of a glamorous blonde wearing a black shirt and a WCC arm band. The caption reads, “Creating Is Life.” It looks harmless enough. But the next page shows the earth with a big W stamped into it. Underneath the globe is the acronym RAHOWA in red letters with flames flickering underneath. Soon, you’re clicking through to downloadable leaflets on such subjects as “Jews in the Clinton Administration” and “The Biological Differences Between the Races.” Eventually, you learn that RAHOWA stands for “Racial Holy War.”
Hate group sites ‘look professional, authentic. To a naive kid, they look legit.’
Rabbi Abraham Cooper,
The most manipulative sites pose as the authoritative, unbiased information sources that they’re not. For example, kids surfing the Web for background on Martin Luther King Jr. might easily find their way to www.martinlutherking.org and www.mlking.org. The sites look legitimate: The home pages display heartwarming photos of the slain civil rights leader and his family. However, further clicks take you to innuendo-filled articles about King’s purported communist “affiliations,” alleged plagiarism, and suspected sexual peccadilloes. Would children pick up on the deception?
Since the Internet changes minute to minute, organizations that monitor hate groups don’t agree on the exact number of hate group sites lurking on the Web. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles counts 2,000 “problematic” sites, including ones that teach bomb-making; the Montgomery, Alabama- based Southern Poverty Law Center found 568 hate and paramilitary/militia sites in 1999. But there’s little disagreement about the hate groups’ cyber mission. “These sites are attempting to use the Internet as a recruiting tool,” says Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report.
Hate groups view the Internet as an important—and cheap—outreach tool, according to Potok and others. It’s “a long-range marketing strategy by bigots who are not going away any time soon,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Potok says Internet sites help hate groups enlist white, middle-class, college-bound teenagers. “This is a constituency that hate groups have never reached before,” he says. And hate group sites are surprisingly sophisticated, he observes. “The typical Holocaust-denial site does not include a lot of raving about ‘niggers,’ Jews, or gays,” he notes. “The sites look professional, authentic. To a naive kid, they look legit.”
Spreading the word about such Web sites has become something of a personal crusade for Jack Hayes. He juggles a hectic schedule—a divorced father who’s raising his three kids on his own, Hayes is working toward a B.A. from the State University of New York at New Paltz while holding down his job as the Hudson Valley’s emergency management officer for the state police. Yet, the self- described “old white guy” uses what free time he has to talk to local educators and police departments, as well as chambers of commerce and Lions Clubs. That’s because a recent experience showed Hayes that evil is a mere mouse click away—and convinced him that education, not law enforcement, is the answer to the problem.
A year and a half ago, working on an assignment for a communications course, Hayes studied a speech by entrepreneur Armand Hammer. Doing background research using the Internet, he came upon what looked to be a biography of Hammer. It was professionally designed, with attractive typefaces. But reading the text, Hayes was brought up short. The site derided Hammer as a communist, an international criminal, a spy. Then Hayes noticed a banner across the top—“Jew Watch.” He backtracked to the home page and discovered a nest of old-line anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. After a few more clicks, he realized he was a visitor at the American Nazi Party Web site.
Appalled, Hayes began to poke around the Web for other hate group sites. He couldn’t help but notice that a number of hate groups with a strong presence on the Web had been linked to recent violence. For example, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a 21-year-old Indiana University student who killed two and wounded 12 African Americans, Asian Americans, and Jews during a three-day rampage in Indiana and Illinois in July 1999, was a member of the World Church of the Creator. Buford Furrow Jr., a 37-year-old Washington state resident who went on a shooting spree in August 1999, wounding five people—including three children—at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, before murdering a Filipino American postal worker, was linked to the World Church of the Creator and the Aryan Nations. “I figured, if I was in the police force and I had never heard of these [organizations], then the average person doesn’t know about them,” Hayes says.
Ultimately, Hayes believes these sites must be confronted—and deconstructed—in the classroom. “It’s the marketplace of ideas. If we can throw out enough good information that addresses the bad information, hopefully we can have some effect,” he says. “A lot of what needs to be done is about how these arguments don’t stand up to logic.”
|Education, not law enforcement, is the answer to the problem.|
The educators who heard Hayes speak in Florida agree that schools must educate kids about hate group Web sites. “In some ways they’re even more frightening than the [sex] sites,” says Thomas Dougherty, principal of Seward High. Orange County Superintendent William Bassett observes: “A large segment of our teenage population is disenfranchised, turned off, not part of the mainstream. The Internet is a great place to find a friend. . . . If we don’t do something to keep them positive, we’re going to lose them.”
At Seward High, administrators have given teachers materials about sites and the language and techniques of hate groups, such as the academic-sounding prose of many Holocaust-denial sites. But they don’t require teachers to use the information. A state mandate to teach about hate groups isn’t likely either, Bassett says. “I don’t think there is more room in our curriculum for more material.”
That doesn’t mean Hayes is wasting his time. Towns like Florida—once a homogeneous community of white farmers that’s now home to many Mexican migrant laborers and blue-collar families fed up with city life—may not appreciate lectures from outsiders on how to handle demographic change. Though organizations like the Simon Weisenthal Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center are national powerhouses in the fight against racism, they don’t always reach small-town citizens. Enter Hayes, who is the opposite of an intimidating, abrasive, city-based activist. He’s a neighbor, and when he speaks at a Kiwanis Club, he could easily be mistaken for a member. He’s got the ear of the man on Main Street.
“After 32 years working in state government, I’m used to things changing slowly,” says Hayes. “You have to persevere. After all, a lot of what we’re talking about is race relations. A lot of people want to keep their feelings inside. They don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box. I’ve had my own prejudices; I’ve had to look into my own prejudices. It’s a slow process.”
Though Hayes retires from the state police this year, he plans to continue riding the circuit through the small towns of the Hudson Valley to speak to educators, school boards, and PTAs about hate groups on the Internet. “I’m not historically a crusader,” he says. “But I think it is real important because there seems to be this violence going on. After Columbine, I talked with schools about the response if something like that happened. But it became obvious that we needed to attack the source—the educating of these kids.”