From a house of hate, an outburst of violence
- 2 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
Are white supremacists in the US given too much freedom to make hateful speeches? As a shooting spree in Kansas shines a spotlight on extremist ideology and its virulent nature, Tara McKelvey goes back to the scene of the crime, in the city where she grew up, to find out.
It was a hot afternoon at the Hillbilly Gas Station in Marionville, Missouri, and a train whistled in the distance. An American flag hanging on a pole was frayed and worn, and one of the gas pumps was broken. The handle was covered in a plastic bag.
Inside the station Joe Walker, the owner of Hillbilly Towing Inc, was sitting at a long table, eating ribs and talking about Frazier Glenn Miller, a former truck driver from Aurora, a town that borders Marionville in Lawrence County.
"He's very nice, very reasonable," said Walker, who used to see Miller around town, adding that he did not hide his views. "He thinks Jews run everything. I don't know where he comes up with that."
Miller, 73, has been charged with murder following the deaths of three people in Johnson County, Kansas, in April. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for November.
Two of the victims, William Lewis Corporon, a 69-year-old physician, and his grandson, Reat Underwood, 14, were killed at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, which is about 180 miles away from Miller's house. Reat, who belonged to the Church of the Resurrection, was there for a singing audition.
Shortly afterwards Miller drove to an assisted-living centre, Village Shalom, about a mile up the road, where Terri LaManno, a 53-year-old occupational therapist, was shot. She was a Roman Catholic.
Miller said repeatedly that Jews should be killed. Using creative spelling, he once composed a letter for his colleagues. "He who fights the Jew, fights the devil," he wrote. "Let the battle axes swing smoothly and the bullets wiss true."
He also posted on extremist sites about the need to "kill all" Jewish people and collected names of kosher restaurants, according to authorities.
His writings are a reminder of the virulence in white supremacist views. Earlier this month a married couple, Jerad and Amanda Miller (no relation to Frazier Glenn), shot and killed three people in Nevada.
The couple was steeped in white-supremacist ideology and spoke openly about their views. Police said they placed a swastika on the body of one of the victims.
Some wonder whether authorities were too easy on Frazier Glenn Miller before the killings - and are too soft on the white supremacists in the US.
Frazier Glenn Miller, who also goes by the name Cross, was the founder of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to researchers at Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation that tracks racist groups.
He pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in 1987 and agreed to testify against others in exchange for a reduced sentence. He served three years in prison.
On 20 June US Senator Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, wrote a letter to US justice officials, questioning whether they had monitored him carefully enough over the years. Dena Iverson, a justice department spokeswoman, told the BBC they are reviewing the letter.
"We're paying all our attention to Islamic terrorism," said David Neiwert, author of Death on the Fourth of July, a book about hate crimes. "And not enough to the biggest problem - the neighbour next door."
Michael German, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who once infiltrated extremist groups, said FBI training materials emphasise the rights of some white supremacists and right-wing militias, but not of other extremists.
Under the first amendment Americans are allowed to say hateful things - with exceptions. If you order someone to commit murder, you can be prosecuted. Otherwise free speech, even when ugly and offensive, is a fundamental right in the US.
In an FBI presentation, agents raised the issue of "First Amendment-protected activities" when discussing white supremacists, German said, but not when talking about supporters of "eco-terrorism" and Islamic extremism.
Meanwhile agents have "designated environmental-rights extremists as the number-one threat", he said, though members of right-wing groups kill more people.
Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI, said: "We don't target groups for who they are. If you want to be a white supremacist - legally there's nothing wrong with that.
"What we're concerned about is breaking the law."
After Miller was released from prison decades ago, he caused few problems for the authorities. Then he apparently decided to "shoot a bunch of Jews and go out with a bang", said Brad DeLay, the sheriff of Lawrence County.
"He failed," said DeLay. "Everything he planned on doing, it backfired."
Miller told his wife he was going to a casino. On the morning of the shootings he called and said his winnings were up, according to the New York Times. Hours later gunfire broke out in a car park at the Jewish Community Center.
Mindy Corporon, a former cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs who wears a silver cross around her neck, pulled into the car park after her father and son were shot.
"I saw Reat, and he had some blood stains, splattered," she said. "That's all I saw - his beautiful face."
On a recent afternoon at the centre, Jacob Schreiber, the chief executive officer, walked past Rams Cafe, a place that is certified as kosher. Then he headed to the car park. The air smelled like roses.
"The assailant stepped out," Schreiber said. "He shot and then got in his car and left."
A New Yorker who lived in Israel for eight years, Schreiber said the assault was a tragedy but does not reflect broader anti-Semitism. "We're here in the Midwest, and people stay here not for the weather but for the people," he said.
"It's easy to think as a Jew there's always somebody lurking behind a stone ready to attack," he said. "But what I found is there are a tremendous number of people who are behind the stones ready to support you."
That was not always the case in Kansas.
The threat from white supremacists
•Far-right extremists have killed 670 people and injured more than 3,000 since 1990
•From 2001-2013, 233 people were charged with "jihadist terrorism" in the US, while 178 "non-jihadists" were charged
•Right-wing extremists killed 34 individuals, while those identified as "jihadists" killed 21
Sources: Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, New America Foundation
My father, John McKelvey, a retired research executive, lives near the Jewish Community Center. He moved to the area decades ago. Back then, he said, parts of Johnson County had restrictions on buying property, "preventing Jews from buying houses in those areas".
The restrictions were lifted, but anti-Semitism persisted.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, people referred to the centre as "JewCommu". It seemed harmless then but less so now. Anti-Semitism, however it is expressed, makes people less sensitive to its history.
It may also play a role in the rise in assaults. Most people who make these remarks would never hurt anyone. Yet they may be less likely to call out those who share their views but have a violent streak.
The problem is not confined to the region. Around the world about 25% of people hold anti-Semitic views, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Some people say white supremacists and other extremists are given too much freedom to hate.
People who live in the Ozarks, a hilly area that straddles the border of Missouri and Arkansas, tend not to ask what their neighbours are up to.
The area is filled with churches - one on Highway 60 has a sign, "God responds to knee mails" - as well as back roads where people can hide. Klansmen, nudists in a "clothing-optional" community and other fringe groups live in the area.
"There is a frontier mentality," said David Embree, who teaches a class in new religious movements at Missouri State University in Springfield and once brought Miller as a guest lecturer to his classroom. "It's, 'You mind your business, I'll mind mine.'"
Miller lived in a house with dark-green shutters. Two railroad ties are lying in the yard, and on a recent afternoon a black dog ran through tall grass. Miller looked like "an old retired farmer", said DeLay. He seemed harmless - and despite his extremist views was hardly shunned.
"Kind of agreed with him on some things," said Dan Clevenger, who was at the time mayor of Marionville, in an interview after the shootings.
"We've got a false economy," he said. "Some of those corporations are run by Jews." Afterwards MaryEllen Brundle, a city alderman, and others threatened to impeach him.
"The words I kept hearing over and over were, 'Step down, Mr Mayor,'" Brundle, who has a decorative tile that says "shalom" in Hebrew on a coffee table in her house, said. "He wouldn't pay attention."
He eventually resigned.
The controversy showed that some people in the area feel free to express extremist views. Many believe that verbal attacks help to create an atmosphere of hostility towards minorities and others.
JJ Jones, a Missouri State University graduate who is black, recalls a night several years ago when he and his then-girlfriend, who is white, stopped at a McDonald's in Aurora. When they came out, he had a flat tyre - with a nail in it.
He asked a friend to help. Later a fight broke out, and he heard a McDonald's employee call the police.
"She said, 'There's two black guys and a white female,'" Jones said. "I was like, man, we're going to jail.'" Afterwards the McDonald's employee told him that he should leave town, and he did.
Jones's experience shows that prejudice in the Ozarks, as in other areas, remains, though people fight against it. Lorraine Ghan, a real-estate agent in Lawrence County, said she felt uneasy around Miller.
"He never raised his voice. But you could just tell there was something in him," she said. "You didn't want to make him mad. He had this - oh, I don't know."
She said: "Your stomach hurts. You're like, 'What do I do here?'" When he gave her a copy of his memoir, A White Man Speaks Out, she went home and burned it.
Down the road from Miller's house, neighbours were standing near a pond in the evening. One woman said she had not noticed anything fundamentally wrong at the house. Neither did the authorities.
As Bresson said: "There's nothing illegal about being weird."
Anti-Semitism and extremist ideology seem to play a role in the violence, but Bresson and other officials say that knowing when a white supremacist - or anyone - will explode is beyond their purview. In the end the authorities and others are faced with a sad reality, described by Sheriff DeLay:
"It's just a messed-up world."