James Von Brunn's attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington was the act of a single man, what many would consider a textbook "lone wolf" incident. But is there really any such thing, or do even lone gunmen usually have people behind them? Federal law-enforcement officials and hate-crimes experts have pointed to a resurgence in activities by extremist groups —a trend NEWSWEEK reported on in depth last month. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Eve Conant about how apparent lone wolves like Von Brunn are not as solitary as people might want to think. Excerpts:
Was this an isolated incident?
It's isolated in the sense that this guy was a lone wolf, certainly in that he acted alone, but he's part of a movement of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. He lists major Holocaust-denier groups on his Web site and how there is going to be a major Holocaust-denial conference on July 25 in Orange County, Calif. He may have acted like a lone wolf, but he is part of a movement.
Are attacks like this simply desperate one-time acts?
Within the white-supremacist movement there is a strong notion of leaderless resistance. The notion is this: look, we can take over the country just by having small cells or lone wolves commit key acts of violence because the rest of the country, at least the whites, will then go along with you. It's called the "propaganda of the deed"—you know who the enemies are, you go out yourself and hopefully people will take notice and act together in resistance.
These ideas were promoted by Louis Beam, a KKK member, and published in The Seditionist, his newsletter, in the early '90s. It came out around 1991, but the idea has been pushed in the white-supremacist movement for a long time since. He has been a big influence on the white-supremacist movement. He's a very scary guy. He was noteworthy because he was also part of the militia movement in the '90s. He's not the inventor of leaderless resistance, but he's remembered for being the most important modern proponent of leaderless resistance in the neo-Nazi world.
Why do you think Von Brunn chose to act now?
There are several things to bear in mind about why this happened now. You have this Holocaust-denial conference coming up. You also had the big commemoration of D-Day and Buchenwald this [past] weekend, in particular the statements by Elie Wiesel and Obama. This guy [Von Brunn] is a big Holocaust denier. He looks for evidence of Jewish and Zionist control of everything. He went to the Federal Reserve with a shotgun [and was sentenced to four years in prison].
This also comes at a time when the hate-crimes bill is coming forward. And in the white-supremacist world, the hate-crimes bill is viewed as an attempt by Jews to muzzle criticism of Jews, Israel and discussion of the Holocaust. These folks believe the Federal Reserve is the way the Jews control the monetary system, banks and the government. Similarly, the Holocaust Museum is considered an example of how the Jews have wrested control of the government, because it is not a private entity. It's a national U.S. government museum.
You have spent time at the Holocaust Museum yourself. Was the security good?
I did a summer study program there. They usually bring in Holocaust scholars, but I was selected because I study Holocaust deniers. I thought the security was very good. We went through all kinds of detectors, and there were armed guards.
Could an event like this lead to copycats?
Yes, but maybe not in the time frame you'd think. You might have someone do something tomorrow or six months from now. I think this event was not a copycat, but mostly related to the Buchenwald presentation and the hate-crimes bill. But you also have to remember that Holocaust denial is a huge part of the extremist world, ranging from Salafists in the Middle East to neo-Nazis in the U.S. There is a whole swath of the world that really believes in Holocaust denial.