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The rising specter of white supremacy

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (C) meets

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (C) meets with Muslim community leaders after the Parliament session in Wellington on March 19, 2019. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/DAVE LINTOTT

Just “a small group of people.”

That’s what President Donald Trump called the white supremacist movement now rearing its pathetic, internet-addled head worldwide.

Yes, a small group of people, including the accused killer of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. And the mass murderer in Norway who slaughtered 77 civilians in 2011. And in America, the one who killed nine at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. And the man who police say took 11 lives at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.

Then there are all of those who support and condone white nationalism online, such as people who praised the New Zealand killer’s racist actions on websites open and hidden. And the 8chan users who spread a copy of the video of his murderous rampage on this dark corner of the internet that amplifies white supremacist polemics and propaganda. And the hundreds of thousands who tried to share and applaud that 17-minute video.

Add the crowds who gather with increasing frequency for white nationalist demonstrations from Germany to the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a man drove a car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer, a counterprotester, in 2017. Or the Coast Guard lieutenant who described himself as a white nationalist and was charged last month in Maryland with plotting to kill “leftists.”

Our digitally connected world now links white nationalists globally. There are no borders to contain this frighteningly immoral virus.

Trump quickly called the faraway massacre on March 15 “horrible.” He was asked whether he saw a global rise in this white nationalism.

“I don’t really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”

Trump has reason to downplay the incident. The suspected New Zealand gunman mentioned Trump in his manifesto as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” It recalls a top leader of the alt-right movement using a “Hail Trump” greeting not long after the president’s election.

These associations are not new charges for Trump, who denies that he is a white supremacist. Yet in 2017 he wanted to be clear that at that big Charlottesville rally and counterprotest, there were “very fine people on both sides” of the issue. And he acted to limit visitors from various Muslim majority countries. And he said some Mexican immigrants were rapists. And President Barack Obama, he was so sure, might not have been born in the United States.

In all of the above and more, Trump has been opportunistic, exploiting the swelling movement of skinheads, neo-Nazis and anti-government militias that grew in prominence because of their fear that white power was threatened under Obama, the nation’s first black president.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spent the past few days showing what it means to be a world leader, comforting families of victims, flatly denouncing hate and working swiftly toward legislative remedies.

It was a different few days for Trump, whose Twitter feed was heavy on lots of non-New Zealand topics, from vague threats to have federal regulators investigate the satirical program “Saturday Night Live” to a bizarre and embarrassing obsession with deceased senator and war hero John McCain. Trump said he just never liked the Arizona maverick, and that he didn’t get a thank-you for his role in McCain’s funeral (that role was limited).

While Trump refuses to acknowledge the white nationalist terrorists both at home and abroad, U.S. authorities must be vigilant. Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 extremist-related killings in the United States in 2018, the most since 1995, according to a January report from the Anti-Defamation League.

Meanwhile, social media is an amplifier. We’re told to get out of the water when lightning strikes because deadly volts can travel far and fast. That describes the ability of Facebook, Twitter and the more frightening underbelly of the internet to spread dangerous messages.

Facebook said it blocked more than a million attempts to repost the New Zealand killer’s video in the first 24 hours after he fired his bullets. Yet many got through. It is becoming more and more clear that even tech companies themselves are not in full control of their products. Even with artificial intelligence tools, they might never be. Smart regulation of the industry is required in an attempt to quarantine this killer ideology that fears people who are different.

A concerted effort is necessary. It might be a small group of people, but its ideas must be shunned and its prejudices rejected. That should be the vocal position of every American up to and including the president.

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