Frazier Glenn Cross, the 73-year-old suspect in Sunday's fatal shooting of three people outside a Jewish Community Center near Kansas City, Mo., has a decades long record of virulent white supremacism and anti-Semitism. He went to prison in the 1980s for weapons charges and for plotting to kill Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the same decade, Cross, also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party. Running for senate in Missouri in 2010, he talked about his views with Howard Stern (our politicians "are all a bunch of whores for Israel"), and he talked to Talking Points Memo in 2012 ("Jews call the shots. But white people, we have no power at all").
Cross called out, "Heil Hitler!" after being escorted into a cop car on Sunday afternoon, and the investigating authorities are treating the shootings as a hate crime. None of the victims were Jewish, but the local police chief said of Cross, "We believe that his motivation was to attack a Jewish facility." He was charged with murder on Tuesday.
So why didn't anyone stop him?
The answer is that you can't arrest someone until you know he is plotting to commit a crime. Despite all the evidence that Cross hated Jews, there's no evidence, so far, that Cross was conspiring with other people to commit last weekend's shootings. Still, there was plenty of evidence that he might have wanted to, which is why it's surprising that, despite Cross's history, the government wasn't keeping tabs on him. "The fact of the matter is that little attention is paid by federal law enforcement to white supremacism as a trigger for domestic terrorism," Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said.
According to Peter Bergen and David Sterman of CNN, "since 9/11 extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right-wing ideologies, including white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants, have killed more people in the United States than have extremists motivated by al-Qaida's ideology" — 34 deaths to 23. Yet Beirich says the government has remained focused on Islamic groups.
Under the name "Rounder," Cross posted more than 12,000 times on the supremacist Vanguard News Network. He also gave the news site money, Beirich says, and helped with distribution. "He was not just an Internet warrior," she told me. "He was out on the streets for them."
Plenty of other countries — Canada, France, Britain, Germany, India, South Africa — have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Not the United States. In this country, incitement becomes criminal only if there is a probability of imminent violence. If you think we have the balance wrong, you have company. Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wondered late in his career whether the First Amendment had been interpreted to set too high a bar on punishing "genuinely dangerous" speech. "I think we should be able to punish speech that urges terrorist violence to an audience, some of whose members are ready to act on the urging," Lewis wrote. Courts in other countries have allowed for this, putting more weight on getting rid of hate propaganda than on promoting free speech.
But the majority of the current Supreme Court is in love with First Amendment absolutism, and not just when it comes to campaign spending. In 2011, the justices voted 8 to 1 to prevent the family of a soldier from suing Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church for emotional distress, after the church picketed the soldier's funeral with signs including "God Hates Fags."
Contrast this with a 2013 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, which voted unanimously to uphold a $17,500 fine against a man who distributed four anti-gay fliers in Saskatchewan. The fliers called gay relationships "filth." The court said the government could outlaw speech that "exposes, or tends to expose, persons or groups to hatred." It defined hatred as "those extreme manifestations of the emotion described by the words 'detestation' and 'vilification.' "
That would never fly in the United States, which might seem like the wrong call after a stock character in a Jewish nightmare spewed hate for decades and then turned violent. Law enforcement should quit training all their resources on Islamists and start watching people like Cross.