Sikh Temple Shooting, WI Courtesy: WISN.com
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Heidi Beirich wasn't surprised by the shooting in which a gunman killed at least six people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple and predicts more incidents like it are ahead.
Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project -- the Montgomery-based group that on Monday identified alleged shooter Wade Michael Page as a white supremacist -- said the organization has been seeing more and more of these incidents.
She said people don't realize how many there have been until they start adding them up.
"There has been a whole string of them," she said, quickly reciting more than a half-dozen shootings and attempted bombings that hate groups have attempted over the past few years.
She believes the presidency of Barack Obama could be a major reason for the escalation.
"I think some of these white supremacists are becoming increasingly desperate as they look at a black man in the White House and as they see the changing demographics in this country," she said. "They see this and have no hope, and perhaps if you lack hope, you are more ready to take up arms."
It's not just domestic terrorism that is increasing, but the number of hate groups, a trend that began before Obama was elected. She said the SPLC's hate-group count has gone from 602 in 2000 to 1,018 in 2011.
"So extremism in this country is absolutely growing and the violence coming from that movement is growing," she said.
But where others see despair, Beirich finds reason to hope. She believes the hate and increasing violence is a response to a United States that white supremacists never wanted to see -- one that is more tolerant and less racially divided.
"As much as the hate movement is growing and as angry as people are, and the increased domestic terrorism -- all of this is such a very small part of American society. So you can really see a flip side to it," she said.
"You can see this as a backlash against positive events -- that for the most part the United States is handling its increasing diversity quite well. The fact 40 million white people voted for an African-American president is a positive sign. If you look at polling today, you find that young people are very tolerant on issues of race, interracial relationships and so on. So while the incidents may be horrific, in some ways you can look at it as a backlash to what is a positive trend in American society."
As far as Sunday's incident, she would not be surprised by a white supremacist attacking Sikhs.
"They don't like anyone who isn't white, and they really don't like Jews either," she said. "It's really not surprising to see an attack on what I am guessing was perceived to be a Muslim community, although Sikhs are not Muslim. Because they are foreigners; they are immigrants; they are dark-skinned, and from the position of someone who believes in white supremacy, these people should not be in the United States because they are destroying the country."
The SPLC found the links between Page and the white supremacist movement Monday morning when the organization ran his name through their database, which is detailed enough that it is often used by law enforcement. The SPLC found that Page had played in a number of bands that promoted white supremacy through their music.
But she said knowing someone is a white supremacist and knowing they may engage in domestic terrorism are two different things.
"It's very hard to tell the difference between someone who is going to go off the rails and do something truly horrific, like this guy allegedly did, and somebody who is just saying hateful things. It's not like you can tell where the line is between people who commit violence and don't commit violence," she said.
While Beirich is pleased about "the big picture" of where the United States is heading, she warns that more violence is likely approaching.
"Because the number of these hate groups have been inexorably rising and because of the fervor around the election -- we are kind of concerned that if Obama wins again, it could make more of these people feel there is no hope and they may decide to 'End the Apathy,' (the name of Page's band)," she said.
"And looking at the track record for the past four years, we are afraid we are going to get more of this type of violence."