The public may never know exactly what was going through the mind of James von Brunn when he allegedly walked through the front doors of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last week and began shooting. Writings published online under his name espouse a familiar roster of conspiracy theories, including that the world is run by a secret Jewish cabal and that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. Friends and family members described the octogenarian as hateful and angry toward Jews and blacks and increasingly down on his luck. The FBI believes that he acted alone.
In the end, authorities may arrive at conclusions about von Brunn similar to those they reached about the man who killed three Pittsburgh police officers in April or the man who shot and killed abortion doctor George Tiller in his Kansas church last month: that he had long marinated in a toxic ideology that legitimized violence and then, one day, took matters into his own hands.
Extremist group monitors and law enforcement officials worry that as more people join hate groups, acts of violence will become more likely. A controversial report from intelligence analysts at the Department of Homeland Security this spring was clear: "Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat...white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy—separate from any formalized group—which hampers warning efforts."
Fueled by a slowing economy and resentment of Obama's presidency, the number of hate groups has jumped 4 percent since last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups in the United States. Nationwide, their number has increased more than 50 percent since 2000. Even before Obama was elected, several white supremacists were arrested for plotting to kill him. The Secret Service had been tracking threats against Obama as early as May 2007. "White nationalists shoot and kill people on a regular basis and have done so for decades—not based on economic motivations but political ones," says Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream.
To be sure, experts say von Brunn's essays were mainstream within an extremist community that is split between the peaceful and violent factions. "He wasn't a leader of the movement, and his writings are remarkably unremarkable," says Chip Berlet, a researcher at the Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, a group that studies extremist movements. Indeed, on a well-known white supremacist Internet forum, reaction to the shooting was swift. Contributors were nearly universal in their support for von Brunn's opinions yet overwhelmingly opposed to his act. "No matter how good is his book [sic] and how many good points he made during his life, this is a very, very bad idea!" one wrote, fearing that von Brunn's actions would undermine the efforts of peaceful white supremacists. Indeed, the one thing experts suspect von Brunn intended, as he targeted one of the most powerful symbols of his anger, was to draw attention to his cause.