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'Wonderful People, Good Souls': The Victims Of The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

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October 29, 2018 1:36 p.m.

Hate Crimes On The rise in U.S.


Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice, CSU San Bernardino, and director of the Center for the Study of hate and Extremism

Related Story: 'Wonderful People, Good Souls': The Victims Of The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting


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Our top story on Midday edition the man arrested in connection with the deadliest attack on Jews in America is being charged with a federal capital crime and faces the death penalty if convicted. Eleven members of the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh were killed while attending services Saturday. Six others were injured. There have been questions raised about whether this is a turning point for Jewish communities in this country. Deadly anti-Semitic attacks have happened in many nations. But this massacre in America is deeply disturbing to people who believed it couldn't happen here.

Joining me is Professor Brian Levin. He's director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino. He has testified before both houses of Congress and various state legislatures on hate and terrorism. And Professor Levin thank you for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me.

The Anti Defamation League says the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 57 percent last year. With that backdrop do you think it was only a matter of time until something like this happened.

Well major American cities including San Diego by the way that hate crimes were up so we were seeing another increase overall in 2017. And the FBI is coming out with some data in a couple of weeks nationally and we expect it to mirror what we found in the major cities were Jews by the way from the top cities are in the top three or so for targeted victims. Even though nationally only 2 percent of the population and in America's largest cities through a little over 4 percent.

So when you see something like that a trend like that the rising number of hate crimes and hate incidents. Do you expect to see an escalation the way we saw in Pittsburgh.

Yes but we've been expecting that for some time. One of the things that's important is the rise of white nationalism and what we have seen is for instance an explosion of hate speech in certain dark corners of the Internet. We also saw in the two and a half years going into and just past Charlottesville more mega rallies that has large rallies by white supremacist or nationalists of 100 or more people in public. We saw more of them in those two and a half years than the previous 10 to 20 years combined. What else are we seeing.

We're seeing a slew of candidates running for places like U.S. Senate and Congress who are white nationalists white supremacist and Holocaust deniers. And we're seeing more of them this time around. Running for the higher offices than we've seen in some time. We know that from some of the social surveys out there that the most hardened bigots around the upper single digits. So for instance an ABC Washington Post poll from last year showed that 9 percent of Americans said that Nazi views were acceptable. So unfortunately we have this this rock of hate that while small seems to be a bit intractable.

What is typically historically going on in society when hate crimes rise. I mean after all we have a good economy there there's low unemployment. Where is this hatred coming from.

That is such a great question. And you not all here is exactly the same. So f'rinstance in the prior decade we saw kind of a bit of a spike from some of the earlier years into the middle and end part of a decade relating to Latino's when we had an influx. With regard to immigration. And then when we saw towards the end of the decade higher unemployment that seemed to correlate somewhat not completely to hate crimes against Latinos. But in 2008 we saw an increase in hate crimes around October which was a conflictual election involving one party leaving and another party coming in.

But those peaks around October 2016. However when we had an insurgency what I mean an insurgency in other words we're going to have a possible change in parties. What we saw was the hate crimes actually spiked in November and this spike was of historic significance. November 2016 was the worst month for a hate crime nationally in 14 years and the day after the election we had a Muslim bomb plot in Kansas and the most hate crimes that we've seen on any single day. Going back to 2003 indeed here in California the only days in 2016 that had double digit numbers of crimes were the days right after the election when we saw an explosion of hate crimes.

So we're concerned that with the conflictual election coming up now even though it's a midterm election we've seen some kind of escalating at least chronologically around that and it'll be interesting to see whether it continues after the election as we saw in 2016 but not so much in 2008.

Now the rhetoric of President Trump and news organizations that support him has been highly critical of the migrant caravan from Central America. Now there are reports that the shooter posted on social media that he believed Jewish organizations were behind the caravan. What are we to make of that kind of conflation of ideas.

What an excellent question and I think what we're seeing is an intersection not only of hate violence but also political violence meeting. And I think you make an important point when there were statements by political leaders sometimes but not always correlates to immediate increases in hate crime. Let me give you some examples where it didn't go up when Candidate Trump launched his campaign and made those derisive statements about Latinos hate crimes against Latinos did not immediately go up. In fact they went down the following week. Similarly during a Republican debate in Detroit in 2015 it was divided between kind of the lower percentage runners and the front runners.

There were some statements that were made in passing that were anti Muslim but it didn't register. However when a candidate Trump spoke about Syrian refugees and sending them back or when he talked about his Muslim ban proposal five days after the San Bernardino terrorist attack in those instances in those instances we saw significant spikes in anti Muslim hate crime. The difference of those times where he was coming up on being a front runner or was a front runner depending on which one we're talking about. And these comments got wide publicity including on some outlets live on television.

So it seems like the more we have a catalytic event that a political politician is talking about the more this message is being spread far and wide and the the higher level that politician is the more likely it's going to be to correlate to a possible rise in hate crime. But it doesn't happen every time.

Now President Trump made a forceful denunciation of anti-Semitism after the Pittsburgh attacked he called it a vile hate filled poison. What else if anything would you like to see the president do.

I think what the president should do is not only make these kind of scripted remarks. It almost seems like he's reading it and I think that one of the things we've seen is he doesn't sustain the message when Charlottesville occurred. He talks about good people on both sides. When these folks were marching with torches saying Jews will not replace us. Also he needs to put more resources into the agencies that combat this stuff not only limited lip service but sustained use of the bully pulpit. Not that it's going to make a difference with everybody but we do know that for instance when tolerant messages are made by leaders it can have an impact.

Six days after 9/11 President Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of D.C. about religious tolerance. Hate crimes dropped by two thirds the next day and they dropped by two thirds in the coming year.

I've been speaking with Professor Brian Levin director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino. Professor Levin thank you.

Thank you so much for having me. A vigil to honor the people who lost their lives at the Tree of Life synagogue attack will take place tonight at 7:00 at the Congregation Beth Israel located at 9 d'Eau one Town Center Dr..