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The murderous rampage of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith has become the latest violence d’jour for the news media. Are we missing the real lesson, though, behind the story of a young fanatic whose thirst for identity and rejection of reason is more commonplace than we might wish to believe?

It started last weekend in the suburbs of Chicago, as he drove his light blue car slowly, almost casually, through the residential neighborhoods. His targets were a group of Orthodox Jews, blacks and Asians. On Saturday, he repeated the pattern, this time near the University of Illinois; and on the following evening, he was in Bloomington, Indiana where he killed a Korean-American. It all ended on Sunday night, as he shot himself after stealing a van and leading the cops on a deadly chase.

People are still wondering what could have motivated Benjamin Smith, a 21-year-old college student, to embark on such a bloody expedition. Smith has been linked to an organization known as the World Church of the Creator, known for its racist ideology which characterizes non-whites as “mud people,” and echoes stereotypical conspiracy theories about a Jewish plot to control the world. While it promotes itself as anti-Christian and anti-Semitic, the Church of the Creator espouses a variant of an ideology known as Christian Identity, the mainstay theological doctrine of many of America’s racist groups including Aryan Nations. Identity theologians teach that while whites (Aryans) descended from the line of Adam and Eve, the Jews and other non-Aryans of the world -- the so-called “mud people” -- arose from a mating between Eve and a sub-human, ape like creature in the Garden of Eden. Identity churches and groups share with other racist movements a call for RAHOWA, or “Racial Holy War.” In public, they often call for the partitioning of the United States into ethnic enclaves; one scheme has Jews being confined to the island of Manhattan, while Aryans move to the Pacific Northwest, and blacks -- if not repatriated to Africa -- end up in the Southern U.S.

As with the teenage killers in Littleton, Colorado, the country is now asking itself what attracted Benjamin Smith to an outfit like the World Church of the Creator and to transmogrify into the latest serial killer-with-a-cause. Like the shooters at Columbine High, Paduca Kentucky and elsewhere, Smith grew up in an affluent neighborhood, a “good kid from a good family.” His father was a doctor, mom a real estate agent, and there is little indication that his bizarre ideas came from the family. At the University of Illinois, Smith even lived in what the New York Times described as an “elite dormitory... known for its progressive program of visiting authors and artists of many cultures and points of views.” Smith reportedly told friends that he felt uncomfortable with so many foreign students and professors around, though, and began reading neo-Nazi literature. He then met Matthew F. Hale, the “pontifex maximus” of the World Church of the Creator. Drinking at Hale’s well of propaganda, Smith immersed himself in Creator tracts and ideology.

Smith is now the latest member in a growing club of media icons like Jose Recindez-Ramirez, Andrew Cunanan, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson who remind us that the fabric of everyday reality can rip at any moment, exposing anyone to the calamitous and unexpected. Those who manage to avoid the stray bullet or homicidal attack can still immerse themselves in the macabre madness of it all from the comfort of the living room, where a steady diet of evening news, courtroom television, or even a trip to the mall bookstore -- where shelves on True Crime seem to sag under the weight of the bounty of new offerings -- provides a voyeuristic, yet safe thrill. We lap it up like hungry, thirsty dogs. For those who believed that we had enough of O.J. (psychologists mused that there actually existed a disorder they dubbed “O.J. Addiction”), the Five Year Anniversary prompted every major network to revisit that ignominious trial where we could once again relive the events, and even recall our extinct interest in the future of Kato Kaelin. Remember him?

... Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem to psychological well being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. He finds in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity the roots of fanaticism and self-righteousness.
We seem to need, even demand a steady diet of such mental fare. If new horrors are not coming our way with sufficient regularity, we revisit the old ones. O.J.’s anniversary was good for a round of prime time “remember this” documentaries, but why stop there? The Summer of Sam beckons us gratis the genius of Spike Lee, and yes, everyone thinks this is “exploitation” of the worst sort but yes, the lines at the theater will be long and anxious.

What sense is there to make out of all of this?

Hillel Schwartz, the patriarch of those who excavate the edgy nervousness of American culture at the cusp of the new millennium, suggests that like clockwork, the end of any century brings forth what he terms “janiformity,” the “dichotomy or doubling” named for twin visages of the old Roman god Janus. In his opus “Century’s End,” Schwartz argues that “certain cultural constellations come to the fore at the ends of centuries, time and again.” As the calendar prepares to roll over to another block of 100 years, the end of a century, “we are inevitably host to an oxymoronic time: the best and the worst, the most desperate and the most exultant; the most constrained and the most chaotic.” In his introduction to “The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, American Culture on the Bring,” Mark Dery further informs us, “The belief that we are history’s witness to extreme of social fragmentation and moral malaise, that we stand at critical junctures and teeter on the brink of momentous decisions, is part and parcel of the fin-de-siecle; the fin-de-millennium simply turns up the cultural volume tenfold...”

Our time is one indeed ruled by the spirit of Janus. We have incarcerated a record number of people in jails and prisons which cannot be built fast enough, but none of this seem to blunt the perception that the barbarians are at the gates, inside our houses, under -- and in -- the bed. We’ve traded in the exultant and carefree thrill of the convertible for our century’s end personal tank, the Sports Utility Vehicle, that is marketed for its sense of reliability and Mussolinian security in these times of chaotic trouble. We have curfews for teens, drug tests for students and welfare moms, “zero tolerance” for everything from cigarettes to beer and cursing, three-strikes laws - a - plenty, neighborhood watch, purse-convenient pepper spray; and, say, brother, when was the last time you saw somebody foolish (or dangerous?) enough to be hitchhiking by the side of the road?

To segue back to Benjamin Nathaniel Smith...

What many people find so worrisome about this latest barbarian who swaggers forth on our neighborhood lanes and interstate highways with his battlecry of “RAHOWA!” is that he comes from “good folks and a good home.” The success of the World Church of the Creator and groups like it is that they no longer concentrate on the trailer-park denizens one encounters on The Jerry Springer Show, the Bubbas-With-An-Attitude whose blue collars can no longer aspire to the Great American Dream, and whose idea of a good time might consist of a foray of gay bashing punctuated with a round of shots and a few beers. Smith is typical of a new breed of warrior, “young, educated, energetic, articulate,” says the New York Times.

Excise all of the clap-trap about Racial Holy War, the “mud people” and some kind of arcane religious philosophy, though, and Benjamin Smith really isn’t all that different from the type of person the late philosopher Eric Hoffer discussed in his 1951 opus, The True Believer. The book established Hoffer as one of the prescient observers of our time; one critics observed: “His work was not only original, it was completely out of step with dominant academic trends... Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem to psychological well being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. He finds in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity the roots of fanaticism and self-righteousness. He finds that a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one’s own life...”

Hoffer observed that the best within us, what he called “the alchemy of man’s soul,” those “noble attributes -- courage, honor, love, hope, faith, duty, loyalty and so on -- can be transmuted into ruthlessness.” He was both skeptical and critical of the mass movements of our time, the totalitarian “isms” that, he said, “infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure.” The worst prone Hoffer labeled fanatics, that man or women who “embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness or holiness, but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to...”

It is thought that Smith was drawn, like a magnet, to the charismatic person of pontifex maximus Matthew Hale and his World Church of the Creator; Smith was, as one pundit observed, “a young person who felt disaffected, who was looking for something to affiliate himself with...” This too Hoffer understood when he wrote of those “many who find the burdens, the anxiety, and the isolation of an individual existence unbearable...” He warned, “Such persons soon or later turn their backs on an individual existence and strive to acquire a sense of worth and a purpose by an identification with a holy cause, a leader, or a movement.” For Hoffer, that movement could be any of the popular totalitarian “isms” sweeping the world, any political or religious ideology that promised salvation, either literal or secular, a “place for everyone,” and for everyone a sense of purpose, order and direction. The outcome, he warned, was not that people, especially the oppressed, would fight for freedom. “They fight for pride and power -- power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.” Smith boasted that he was “more afraid for my race than myself. Nature isn’t concerned with the individual, but with the species...”

From this vantage point, Benjamin Smith was not altogether that different from the millions of other human beings whose sense of self-worth, purpose and place in an otherwise-chaotic and discordant universe comes from being part of a larger, regimented, organic movement -- a class, a race, a struggle, a phalanx, all marching as one to the regular candence of orders. The universe becomes divided into a Manichean battlefield -- in Smith’s case, one pitting the White Race (RAHOWA!) against the “mud people,” Jews, and other ideological vermin. Tweak the quantum flippancy of the universe a bit, and someone like Benjamin Smith could have been in a gang of Mau-Mau, or marched with the Condor Legion, or blindly performed the bidding of an Adolph Hitler or Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria. He could have been an enthused Inquisitor hunting for witches and doctrinal heretics, a self-righteous Calvinist autocrat intent on imposing The Heavenly Kingdom on earth at any cost.

Hoffer is not identified as an Atheist, but he did suggest that we do not construct God in our own image. The fanatic who struts to the orders of others and the blind dicta of an ideological or religious faith creates a god “in the image of his cravings and dreams -- in an image of what man wants to be.” Hoffer waned, “The ruthless born of self-seeking is ineffectual compared with the ruthlessness sustained by dedication to a holy cause. ‘God wishes,’ said Calvin, ‘that one should put aside all humanity when it is a question of striving for His glory.’”

“Take man’s most fantastic invention,” declared Hoffer, “God. Man invents God in the image of his longing, in the image of what he wants to be, then proceeds to imitate that image, vie with it, and strive to overcome it.” As for religion, to Hoffer it was “not a matter of God, church, holy cause. etc. These are but accessories. The source of religious preoccupation is in the self, or rather the rejection of the self.... Man alone is a religious animal because, as Montaigne points out, ‘it is a malady confined to man, and not seen in any other creature, to hate and despise ourselves...’”

For those who look for a Strongman to follow blindly, to obey, to die for, the cause is not something to be understood and comprehended on a rational basis. Reason is an enemy, a cumbersome inconvenience better replaced by faith, belief and obedience. The Cause it is to be embraced as a blind passion, a holy calling, a higher imperative which demands that its believers prepare to sacrifice themselves on the altar of ideology and belief. The critical and skeptical individual, that annoying person who asks questions and seeks explanations, become an enemy. “All mass movements avail themselves of action as a means of unification,” wrote Hoffer. “The conflicts a mass movement seeks and incites serve not only to down its enemies but also to strip its followers of their distinct individuality and render them more soluble in the collective medium.”

The fanatic wants to follow, to be reduced to an instrument of higher purpose. “There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts which are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses,” Hoffer wrote. “Both the strong and the weak grasp at this alibi. The latter hide their malevolence under the virtue of obedience; they acted dishonorably because they had to obey orders. The strong, too, claim absolution by proclaiming themselves the chosen instruments of a higher power -- God, history, fate, nation or humanity...”

“The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”

Ironically, Hoffer died in 1983, one year short of Orwell’s distopian and apocalyptic time line for the human race. He lived through the waning days of the more blatant manifestation of autocracy and theocracy, and what some consider to be the last gasps of other totalitarian ideologies. There is no guarantee, though, that the fear of genuine freedom and intellectual independence which plagues so many of the human species is any less diminished in our time than it was when Hoffer first put word to paper. Our time cries out for a strong dose of Hoffer’s wisdom and insight. Benjamin Smith, another holy warrior whose inner troubles and turmoil fueled a desperate battlecry for demolishing the world and reconstructing it according to his, or someone else’s image of perfection and unanimity, is sufficient testament to that fact.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.