Summer of Smith

How Ben Blew Into (and Out Of) Bloomington

In the days after Smith shot Won-Joon Yoon, an exceptionally talented Korean doctoral student, as Yoon was walking into church, Bloomingtonians reacted with rage at the local Herald-Times for running Smith's photograph as part of the logo for its "Hate Hits Home" series. The Anti-Racist Action chapter put out a release saying that people "should not ask what could have been done to stop" Smith from killing, but should focus instead on "what we can do to confront, expose, and disempower the existing white supremacist movement." Yet according to those who study both hate crime and mass murder, to neglect a closer examination of Smith, and how Bloomington and IU handled him, is ill-advised.

"Organized hate groups provide the inspiration for hate crimes, but I think it's a mistake to focus too much on the group and not enough on the individual who committed the act," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "And in this case, Smith was not the standard hate group member," Levin adds.

Levin's research over the past two decades has shown that youths who join hate groups are often not those who intrinsically hate, but those desperate for a sense of belonging. "It's really a question of who gets to a kid like this first— a religious cult, the Klan, but some group effectively preys on kids with these vulnerabilities," says Levin. In Smith's case, though he identified with other hate groups before the World Church of the Creator, he was a loner who found solace in racist theology.

Unlike other racist right groups, which use novel interpretations of Christianity to justify their racism, the World Church of the Creator holds Christianity in contempt on the grounds that it promotes weakness. Yet while the WCOC casts itself as a bastion of unflinching power, its literature is laced with self-pitying whining. It legitimizes the notion that an individual is not responsible for any ill that has befallen him (since it's all the fault of the Jews, who are "mongrelizing" the white race by promoting race mixing), hence might makes right.

As Levin and others have found, although the roots of mass murder generally lie in feelings of marginalization, mass murderers quickly externalize all responsibility and begin to retreat into their own private fantasy worlds where they wield power. (Indeed, many mass murderers flaunt Nazi symbols, not necessarily because they subscribe to the ideology, but because Nazi totems represent absolute power.) "You have to factor in the individual psychopathology here," says Levin. "This group validated something that was there before. This was a hate crime. But I also think Smith was a potential mass killer whether he joined this group or not. All the characteristics were there."

According to Gregg McCrary, a former FBI investigator who has studied multiple-victim murderers, it was probably just a question of when he would go off. It's really difficult to prevent something like this or know when it's going to happen— the best analogy I can draw is something like a tornado watch, where you have the right conditions for elements to commingle and mix, and even though you might not get a tornado, you need to watch," he says. "One of the issues here is not just hate groups, but how hate groups attract and reinforce unstable people like this who are already on the edge [and how] the people who run these organizations typically try to create an aura of plausible deniability." Though he had the characteristics of a mass murderer, the fact that Smith was a spree killer— the ultimate suicidal maniac whose rage boils over but who embraces a more directed, calculating approach to slaying reflective of a serial killer— says a lot about how extremist groups foment violence in people already predisposed to it, especially when their ideology makes dehumanizing others more acceptable.

Like many schools, Indiana University has a bureaucracy to deal with racism. Records from its Racial Incidents Team show instances of university officials counseling students reported to have made racist comments. However, the only counseling Smith ever got was from Dean of Students Richard McKaig, who simply told him in no uncertain terms what the university rules were on the posting and distribution of literature. "A lot of people were of the opinion that he was set in his ways and not interested in constructive dialogue, so I don't think there was ever any incentive to build bridges," McKaig reflects.

Because Smith's classroom racist invective was exempt from the university's anti-racist guidelines, no one from the Racial Incidents Team intervened— although their records are littered with instances of his on-campus leafleting. According to Jeffrey Willsey, Bloomington United's coordinator, a member of the group invited him to study sessions, but he never responded.

In Levin's estimation, by the time Smith arrived in Bloomington, he was probably beyond help. That said, Levin believes that among the lessons to be learned from Smith's rampage is the need for intervention with such people as early as possible. "The only thing you could have done is to have tried to reach out to him in a meaningful way— and let's face it, there aren't many members of the community who are going to reach out to this guy— but what he really needed was support systems."

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