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Fear. It’s really, traced back to its roots, all about fear. When Dr. Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, stood in front of a packed UTC auditorium on March 27 and talked about the explosion of hate and “patriot” groups across the country, it wasn’t hard to see that what links people in these groups is fear: Fear of a changing America, which, as Beirich noted, by sometime in the 2040s will see whites as a minority; fear of a black president so intense and paranoid that in the face of overwhelming documentation it still sees him as a “Muslim socialist;” irrational fear of a big, bad UN that is going to take your guns and force you to drive Smart Cars; fear of people who speak other languages; fear of gay people who want to marry.
People this fearful are dangerous and, as the SPLC points out in a March 5 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the threat of domestic terrorism from a “patriot” group or “sovereign citizen” acting alone is the highest it has been since the 1990s, when the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act and the assault rifle ban helped fuel Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Beirich also pointed out the links between hate groups and militias, and noted that although only one Tea Party group is on the SPLC list, many overtly racist and homophobic signs have been spotted at Tea Party rallies. And what are we supposed to think about state legislators so fearful and uninformed that they mistake a mop sink for a Muslim foot-washing station?
Don’t think we’re immune here in Chattanooga. The most recent SPLC map shows neo-Nazi, white nationalist and “other” hate or militia groups in or very close to the city. In her speech, Beirich made mention of recent remarks by Sheriff Jim Hammond, who noted that he routinely heard from citizens terrified of what “the government” was going to do, their fear likely fueled by poisonous outlets such as the radio program “The Political Cesspool.”
The antidote to fear is both courage and knowledge. So when a young woman asked Beirich if she felt the college students in the room could counter this fear, she said yes—if you speak up, if you will become informed and active. “That’s our job,” murmured the young woman as she turned away from the microphone. Yes, it is, and it’s one that lasts a lifetime.