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HBO documentary on Internet hate groups sidesteps messy questions of First Amendment for naive mishmash

How do you say something bad about a guy who sticks up for Jews and blacks? With trepidation. But we'll see. Some years ago one of the several liberal magazines I subscribe to sold its list to the Southern Poverty Law Center. So for what seemed a long time they sent me their fund-raising letters -- each emblazoned with a grisly photograph of a young black man, his dead body lashed to a tree and twisted in several directions.

He was the victim of a Southern lynch mob. The fund-raising letter made it clear that lynch mobs were not a relic of history but a live threat to black people today, and if I didn't want to stand by and let this go on, I should send some money.

Today Morris Dees, the co-founder-director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has expanded his field of operation.

In September he brought suit against Richard Butler, the 82-year-old leader of the Aryan Nation compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, based on a 1998 incident when members of Butler's private security force chased and shot at a mother and son driving by in a car. The attackers were sent to jail; but Dees seeks to bankrupt the group and close it down, charging that the pro-Hitler rhetoric of old Butler inspired his goons to go on a rampage.

Dees' conviction that "hate rhetoric" moves dangerous people to murderous violence inspires the new HBO documentary, "Hate.Com: Extremists on the Internet," (to be broadcast Oct. 23). It was produced in association with the center.

There are, Dees says, now more than 350 hate sites -- some targeted at children. Being a child has become an increasingly perilous stage of life. When I was 12, the big threat was comic books. Today at 12 I'd have to worry about video games, rock and rap lyrics, R-rated movies, Internet porn, and now Web sites trying to seduce me into becoming a Nazi.

Dees focuses on a half-dozen hate groups and their leaders -- like Stormfront, Christian Identity, World Church of the Creator and readers of the race war novel The Turner Diaries. Dees attempts to demonstrate that some of the worst people of our lifetime were moved to their monstrous acts by clicking onto these Web sites.

Benjamin Smith, 20, who killed two minority persons and wounded seven in Illinois, was a follower of Matt Hale, 29, founder of the World Church of the Creator. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the government building in Oklahoma City, and the white guys who dragged the black man James Byrd to his death behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas, read The Turner Diaries.

OK. But what is the value of this HBO "documentary" as journalism? I fear that the producers simply brought this product to HBO, and HBO bought it because of its can't-go-wrong thesis -- that Jews and blacks and gays are victims -- rather than for its journalistic quality.

There is no attempt to put any of its "evidence" in perspective or context. Were there no other bad influences in these killers' lives? We can't even read the evidence when the camera zooms in -- with spooky, ominous music in the background -- on an evil Web page. All we see is "I HATE NIGGERS!"

A standard network documentary would present historians, professors, lawyers from both sides, political scientists, other journalists and others to help us come to our own conclusions -- not whether "hate is bad" (we all agree on that), but whether the appearance of hate messages on the Internet is such a threat to democracy that we should rewrite the First Amendment to shut them up.

I asked HBO for a list of "350 hate sites," and they referred me to The Hate Directory (www.hatedirectory.com), a Web site with a list of hate sites compiled by Raymond A. Franklin in Maryland. And it's a long list. Heavy on Holocaust deniers, but including feminist groups like SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men). …