Pete Simi, a Chapman sociology professor, has been a sought-after expert for the past few months. Why? Simi, whose research focuses around extremism and violent groups, is a leader in his field, specializing in attacks that involve right-wing and white supremacist extremists, like the April 27 synagogue shooting in Poway, San Diego that killed one worshipper and injured three others.
The Panther sat down with Simi, who has been researching these topics for at least 20 years, to discuss trends in hate crimes and religious violence.
Simi’s responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was your first reaction when you heard about the Poway shooting in San Diego?
A: Unfortunately, it’s not a surprise given what we’ve seen in recent years with an increase in hate crimes – also, the string of violent attacks committed by right wing extremists (and) white supremacists in particular.
We’re seeing this in terms of the shooting rampage in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh recently, the New Zealand mosque attack and Dylann Roof’s attack on the African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina a few years back. And a number of other incidents of a similar nature where you see these folks who are acting on the larger white supremacist movement to commit these acts of violence.
Q: There are a lot of religious hate crimes happening worldwide recently. Why do you think that is?
A: We’re seeing a lot of polarization in our world today, some of which is centered around religious differences and religious conflicts of various sorts. What we saw in terms of the synagogue shooting in Poway does reflect that … a real rise in anti-Semitic violence in the U.S. We’re seeing, in particular, a rise in fascist or right-wing extremist movements across the U.S. and Europe as well.
Q: What are your thoughts on a place like Southern California experiencing a hate crime like this?
A: There’s a misconception about these kinds of hate groups in terms of where they’re concentrated. We like to think they’re confined to the South in terms of U.S. history. We don’t necessarily associate a large prevalence of these groups in places like the Southwest in terms of California. These groups really exist across different geographic regions. But actually, they have a long history in terms being concentrated in places like California. (It’s something) we often want to either kind of ignore or neglect or minimize.
Q: Why do you think it is that there’s that tendency to ignore?
A: It forces us to deal with some real unpleasant, ugly aspects of our society. If we do acknowledge the problem, then we have to take some responsibility for creating these groups and fostering an environment where these groups can continue to exist and in fact, even thrive.
Q: Without speculating too much about how the lone gunman in Poway was influenced, what environment contributes to extremists committing acts of violence?
A: One of the things that’s important to acknowledge is that in these lone actor incidents of violence, we often really focus on the loner aspect. Well, the act of violence may be committed by a single individual but in fact, the violence really needs to be understood as part of a larger community or a larger movement.
When you look at the white supremacist movement since the 1950s and 60s, if you look at (Ku Klan) Klan-era violence, this has been a strategic, intentional tactic that’s been promoted – for single individuals to go out and commit acts of violence. When you look at the manifestos, whether it’s in Poway or the New Zealand shooter, you find evidence of this, where these individuals are clearly acting on behalf of a larger cause.
Q: What about social media?
A: More recently, we’re seeing the prevalence of social media, where there are these platforms, whether it’s gaming platforms or other types of social media platforms, where individuals are in some cases being targeted by extremists or just meeting people who share those views, and they may slowly get indoctrinated. But the social media platforms really provide a safe haven of sorts for this kind of extremism to persist.
Q: What can we do to expedite the response time if someone spots something worrisome online?
A: There’s the mantra from the Department of Homeland Security, ‘See something, say something.’ But you do have a system issue in terms of how much can the system deal with these kind of responses, especially if you’re getting so-called false positives.
I don’t know the specifics in terms of what happened in Poway, but we did see something similar with the Parkland shooting. Reports (were) made to the FBI about the perpetrator (Nikolas) Cruz and (there was) not a lot of response on their part.