The cold-blooded murder of Blaze Bernstein has horrified the Jewish community and indeed all Americans. It is hard to come to terms with the shocking brutality that ended the life of such a bright and promising young man. At just 19, Blaze already had shown an aptitude for writing and the arts, even while excelling in a rigorous molecular sciences program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Blaze will always be remembered for the beautiful life he led — however short — and for the compassionate, thoughtful and involved young man he was becoming. We mourn his loss, even as we search for meaning behind his tragic death.
Much less is known about the circumstances of his death by stabbing, allegedly at the hands of an acquaintance, Samuel Woodward. But a clearer picture now is beginning to emerge. And it is a troubling one to be sure.
Shortly after Bernstein disappeared, police arrested Woodward and charged him with murder. Woodward initially drew attention because he was the last person to see Bernstein alive and had demonstrated extremely erratic behavior. He reinforced the suspicions of law enforcement who flagged his alleged use of extreme rhetoric on social media and other evidence suggesting that he had engaged in violent fantasies prior to the disappearance of his friend.
For example, Woodward is alleged to have expressed racist and white nationalist sentiments online. One recently uncovered photograph shows Woodward re-enacting a scene from a popular film, “American History X” that depicted a grisly skinhead murder committed by stomping a victim’s head against a curb. And ProPublica reported that three individuals who knew Woodward say he’s an avowed neo-Nazi and allegedly a member of Atomwaffen, a notoriously violent neo-Nazi group. Atomwaffen cells have been reported in multiple states.
The group’s Florida chapter took a hit in May 2017 when Devon Arthurs, 18, a former member who converted to Islam, allegedly murdered two of his roommates, Atomwaffen members Jeremy Himmelman and Andrew Oneschuk. An investigation following the murders revealed that a fourth Atomwaffen member, Brandon Russell, had been collecting explosive materials in his apartment. Arthurs claimed that Russell’s plan was to attack civilians, nuclear facilities and synagogues.
Yet the question still remains — was Bernstein’s death a hate crime? If Woodward did share an affinity with white supremacist or anti-Semitic or anti-LGBTQ ideology, Blaze Bernstein would have been an ideal target: Blaze was both Jewish and gay. His parents have hypothesized that the crime could have been homophobic in nature. For now, we don’t have the answers necessary to draw any firm conclusions. This is where law enforcement needs to play an essential role in separating fact from fiction.
It is important that they do so. This violent crime takes place against a backdrop of rising intolerance. At the Anti-Defamation League, we have tracked extremist movements for years through our Center on Extremism. And we have found that right-wing extremists, particularly white supremacists, have been responsible for the vast majority of domestic extremist-related deaths in the U.S. over the past 25 years.
In the past decade, more than 70% of such killings can be attributed to right-wing extremists. In 2017, they committed 20 of the 34 extremist-related murders in the U.S.
This is all happening at a moment when white supremacist groups are attempting to gain a foothold in mainstream society via coordinated efforts on college campuses, in the media and at the ballot box.
Since September 2016, white supremacists have targeted 216 college campuses in 44 states with propaganda including fliers, stickers, banners and posters. Racists and bigots are able to capture public attention via both fringe podcasts and mainstream media appearances. Some are even running for public office. Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin Republican who hopes to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan, is increasingly spewing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and racist messages from his official Twitter account and on white supremacist podcasts. In Pennsylvania, Sean Donahue, a white nationalist, is a candidate in the race to replace GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who is leaving his House seat to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.
In many ways, it would not be surprising if the murder of Blaze Bernstein turns out to have been motivated by anti-Semitism or other bias. His senseless death would be yet another data point on a trend line of increasing right-wing extremism. It could serve as another example of how hatemongers influence troubled white youth who turn to violence as a way to act on their beliefs.
Again, Bernstein’s death may be an aberration and not another anti-Semitic or anti-LGBT hate crime. But whether or not an investigation finds that his murder was inspired by hate, we should learn from this loss and take greater steps as a society to reduce hate-motivated violence.
There are many ways authorities could pursue this goal. Increasing law enforcement training on how to deal with hate and hate crimes and then report on such incidents. Expanding anti-bias content in classrooms to immunize children from the virus of prejudice. Engaging lawmakers to ensure all states have comprehensive hate crimes laws that will discourage those who otherwise might be inclined to commit crimes and punish those who do. Working with Big Tech to remove content specifically designed to inspire violence from their platforms.
Despite the clear benefit of a comprehensive approach, it’s galling to think that our country has an inconsistent patchwork of hate crimes laws. Five states still have no laws calling out hate crimes. Only 31 states provide protections based on sexual orientation. And, according to the FBI, more than 90 cities with more than 100,000 residents either affirmatively reported zero hate crimes or ignored the FBI request for their 2016 hate crime data. This must change.
It will require a variety of approaches and broad stakeholder engagement to reduce and prevent violent acts of intolerance. But out of respect for victims of hate and others we have lost — including Blaze Bernstein — let's approach it with honesty and vigor.