Nothing challenges the dignity and rights of all Americans more than the intersection of bigotry and violence. The Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., on Sunday that left seven people dead, pierced the sanctuary of a house of worship and held a mirror to xenophobia’s appalling face. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which birddogs hate groups, the murderer, who was shot dead by police, was a strident white supremacist.
For Northwesterners, the default reaction is sympathy, outrage and, perhaps, a complacent faith that it can’t happen here. Ironically, “It Can’t Happen Here” was the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel that imagined a demagogic politician named Buzz Windrip who launches a patriot movement enforced by a militia known as the “Minute Men.”
The Lewis narrative foreshadowed real-life, pathetic offshoots, all predicated on intolerance. Minutemen American Defense? It is (or was) an Everett-based nativist fringe group once led by a misfit named Shawna Forde. In 2009, Forde, along with fellow Everett-ite Minuteman Gunny Bush, committed a home invasion in rural Arizona that left a 9-year old girl, Brisenia Flores, and her father dead. Forde and Bush were subsequently convicted and sentenced to death.
Shawna Forde and her ilk aren’t an historic blip to be dismissed as outliers that evolved in a vacuum. Consider, for example, Kevin Harpham, the thirtysomething anti-Semite who fantasized about a race war and came within inches of detonating a backpack bomb at Spokane’s Martin Lutheran King, Jr. parade in 2011.
Tease up the thread of Forde and Harpham and the long seam of nativism and racism begins to unravel, much of it here in the Pacific Northwest. There was the Aryan Nations, the militia movement of the 1990s, the anti-Indian fishing forces, the John Birch Society, the Fascist Silver Shirts once active on Whidbey Island, the KKK, the American Protective Association (prominent for a time in Everett), and anti-Chinese pogroms to name a few. They all stood on the shoulders of the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and those perennial forces that scapegoat and deal in xenophobia.
Hate leaders have expertly crafted a lesser angels’ catechism that indoctrinates the credulous and the vulnerable. As Eric Hoffer wrote in his 1951 masterpiece, “The True Believer,” “It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak.”
When tackling the cross of bigotry and violence, complacency is not an option. We can memorialize the Sikh temple tragedy by revisiting the history of reaction and race relations in our own community. We might consider nudging county lawmakers to give the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission more teeth and impart the resources to educate the next generation. Evil draws the weak, and the realities of human nature — good and bad — are universal. If only we didn’t need bloodletting to remind us of that.