No TV news organization is doing a better job of chronicling the rise of right-wing hate groups in this country than Frontline.
In August, the PBS series offered “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” a powerful reminder of the deadly alt-right rallies in Virginia in 2017. The report, which featured Frontline and ProPublica correspondent A.C. Thompson tracking white supremacists who engaged in violent behavior in Charlottesville and got away with it, was a model of dogged and righteous journalism doing what government law enforcement agencies should have but hadn’t. There were multiple arrests and prosecutions as a result of the report.
I hope it wins a million awards because it deserves them.
Tuesday night comes Part 2 of this team effort, “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis,” with Thompson chronicling a neo-Nazi group that includes former and current members from the U.S. military. The group advocates lone wolf terrorist attacks on Jews like the recent one at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Thompson’s interviews include former and current members of the Atomwaffen Division as well as James Mason, the man whose writings provide an ideology of virulent anti-Semitism for the group. Deep context is provided in part through interviews with academic and government experts who have been studying such hate groups for decades.
The report I screened, a not-yet-final version of the documentary that will air Tuesday, opens and closes with Thompson standing at the impromptu memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue where a gunman killed 11 members of the congregation during a Saturday service on Oct. 27.
“Another act of terrorism in America,” the reporter says in voiceover. “The country again left to ask, ‘Where does this hate come from? Could it have been prevented? Could it have been predicted?’ ”
Thompson goes on tell viewers that for several years he has been “reporting on a resurgent white supremacist movement” in America.
“I’ve seen its ideas migrate into the mainstream,” he says. “I’ve seen violence in cities across the country. And now this: the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history. And I can’t help but think there will be more.”
Indeed, the FBI reports anti-Jewish instances up 37 percent last year. In Maryland, the rise is 47 percent.
Just this week, a swastika and anti-black graffiti were found in a bathroom at Goucher College. And Wednesday night during a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Hippodrome, a man in the balcony did the Nazi salute and shouted, “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump.” Anthony M. Derlunas II later apologized and told The Sun he was attempting to compare President Donald Trump to the Nazi fuehrer.
The film cuts from outside the Tree of Life synagogue to Charlottesville and those dark, angry images from 2017 of neo-Nazis standing in the streets of that university town defiantly chanting, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”
And then, we join Thompson back on his journey to document and confront hate with a focus on Atomwaffen.
He starts in a library at the University of Kansas where the writings and personal papers of Mason are housed. Featured is a newsletter Mason published in the 1980s titled “Siege.” It’s filled with ugly anti-Semitic imagery and beliefs. It worships at the altar of Hitler and the Nazi movement of the 1930s and ‘40s in Europe.
It also worships at the altar of mass murderer Charles Manson. Mason corresponded with Manson, who died in prison in 2017. The cult leader was convicted in connection with a series of murders committed by his followers.
That’s the “intellectual” underpinning of the Atomwaffen Division, and starting the expose there is the choice of a news organization that values context over the inherently sensational information it discovered in its investigation.
There is plenty of shock value in the writings and images of Atomwaffen presented by Thompson and his producing colleagues: director Richard Rowley and producers Karim Hajj and Jacqueline Soohen.
But some of the biggest shocks come from what academic and government analysts tell Thompson.
Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago professor, brilliantly explains the connection between the white power movement and recent American wars.
The author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America” describes how such military excursions result in young men returning home ready and able to use their military training to join extremist groups aimed at attacking the government that trained them.
Timothy McVeigh, the Okahoma City bomber, is an example of her thesis and Exhibit A of the kind of lone wolf terrorist that Atomwaffen is now training members to be after going underground in the wake of Charlottesville.
Daryl Johnson, a former analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, also saw the white terrorist threat in American life years ago and wrote a report analyzing it for the government.
His reward for predicting the coming terror: His government unit was shut down, he says, in the interview with Thompson.
Thompson’s journey ultimately brings him face to face with Mason, who starts out evasive, but by the end of the conversation, is in full anti-Semitic bloom.
He calls McVeigh and the driver of a car that killed a woman in Charlottesville heroes.
“The white race is in danger,” he says. “And it’s not by accident. It’s driven, it’s planned.”
And who’s planning that?” Thompson asks.
“It’s the Jews,” Mason says. “I mean, we know that.”
He says how inspired he feels by President Donald Trump’s election.
“With President Trump winning that election by surprise … I now believe anything could be possible,” he tells Thompson. “As Trump says, and he has it printed right across the front of his hat, make America great again. In order to make America great again, you have to make it white again. … We’re headed for interesting times.”
As much as I have focused on the words and facts of this Frontline report, TV is a visual, and the imagery in this report is moving and powerful as well.
The image of Thompson at the makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue sticks with me as much as some of the words of his narration. Standing there under overcast skies amid all those markers of death and wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt, he could be a figure from an Ingmar Bergman film. The image is that existential.
His last words in the report: “This story is far from over.”
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I hope Frontline, PBS, Thompson and his fellow producers will keep documenting hate. Their work gives me hope in these bleak days and nights.