On July 10, I interviewed five Nazis at the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nations compound in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The Nazis liked me. I was polite; I was white; I listened to their jokes -- even the ones about gas ovens.
Exactly a month to the day after I interviewed the Nazis, Buford O. "Neal" Furrow shot five people, including three children, at a Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles. The connection with my interview was about more than just the date: On the very same Nazi compound I visited, Furrow was married to Debbie Mathews, the widow of Robert Mathews, who founded the Nazi paramilitary organization the Order in 1983. Early news reports identified Furrow as head of security for the compound, but it turned out he was just a lowly volunteer.
Richard Butler, the founder and pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ Aryan Nations, officiated at Furrow and Mathews' wedding, although he claims not to remember. But Aryan Nations leaders frequently do not remember much about their current or former members after they have gone off and done something stupid with a weapon.
Furrow's vicious deed will now have the world swarming to the Coeur d'Alene compound again. Reporters will hear what I heard: that being a Nazi is not about hate. "It's about love of your own kind," they told me. "That is the derivative of the word kindness." They said that Benjamin Smith, the lone white supremacist sniper who went on a killing spree in the Midwest last month, would not be welcome on the compound. "Killing yourself," Christian Teague told me, "is a sin."
Today, Christian was on NBC. She says the word on Furrow is that he was a quiet guy they barely knew. Butler, who also barely knew Furrow, still said he understood what made him do it: "It's the rage of the white man."
The Aryan Nations say they are waging a holy war to make the world safe for white Christians. They have neatly inverted the language of oppression: The Jews control the government, blacks control the cities and the white race is on its way to extinction. To be a member of the Aryan Nations is to be denied your civil rights: You will be fired from your job, denied your mortgage and you can't even get the T-shirt guy to print swastika shirts anymore.
Listening to them speak was like reading the civil rights movement on a photographic negative: All I had to do was switch the word "black" to the word "white."
A recent article posted on the Aryan Nations Web site reads: "Hate Comes to Northern Idaho, but it didn't wear a swastika." The article goes on to describe the protestors who blockaded the parade route for the July 10 Aryan Nations rally, thus denying the Nazis free speech. The Nazis are getting more adept at victimology, and no doubt they'll find a way to make themselves victims of Furrow's rampage, too.
Of course, the Nazis liked me a whole lot less after my article appeared. If you ever piss off a Nazi, expect a lot of e-mail. First, they claimed betrayal -- they thought I was nice. Then they called me a liar and threatened to sue. Finally, they just sent e-mails that read, "Hail White Victory in Christ."
Here's what they did not do: They did not threaten to follow me home, to bomb my office or shoot me on the street. They knew that if they did, I would call the FBI, and the FBI would take me seriously, because their threats have been serious before.
But I understood the Nazis' upset at finding that I wasn't a sympathizer, though I appeared sympathetic; that I wasn't one of them. Because if I hadn't known I was talking to Nazis, I might not have known that they weren't just like us.
The other kind of hate mail I received after I wrote the article on the Nazis did not come from the Nazis. It came from the Jewish Defense League. They said that to portray monsters as human was a form of exoneration. I say it's a form of defense -- know your enemy. The most frightening thing about Nazis is not that they are monsters. It's that many of them are not -- at least not visibly.
How can you spot Buford Furrow, the guy who fired on three schoolchildren under the age of 10? He's the same one who, neighbors say, ran across the busy street to get the mail for them.