According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 932 active hate groups or organizations in the United States last year.

Their general definition of a hate group is one that has beliefs and/or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for characteristics that cannot be changed.

The activities of these congregations can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting and publishing.

Further, a SPLC Intelligence Project identified 512 so-called “Patriot active groups” in 2009. Of these groups, 127 were militias.

Others include common-law courts, publishers, ministries and citizens groups. Generally, these groups are opposed to the “New World Order” and engage in what SPLC calls “groundless conspiracy theorizing and advocate or adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines.”

Individuals associated with the Patriot movement during the 1990s produced massive violence, including the Oklahoma City bombing, which left 168 people dead.

“Nativist” organizations that not only advocate restrictive immigration policies, but actually confront and harass suspected immigrants as well, grew from 173 in 2008 to 309 last year.

One of the most poignant tragedies related to these groups was when the leader of the Minuteman American Defense and two followers were accused of shooting a Latino man and his 9-year old daughter to death in Arizona in 2009.

“These horrific murders represent the most egregious behavior by nativist extremists in 2009, a year in which the groups’ in-your-face tactics were repeatedly used against immigrant communities,” writes Heidi Beirich, research director at SPLC.

“On the California border, Minutemen armed with rifles, night-vision goggles, thermal-vision scopes and body armor held regular sundown-to-sunup reconnaissance patrols.”

“We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people (who are) angry, resentful, and full of anxiety,” states Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Boston-based Political Research Associates.

“They are raging against the machinery of the federal bureaucracy and liberal government programs and policies including health care, reform of immigration and labor laws, abortion and gay marriage.”

On the surface, these issues, which concern all Americans, are up for grabs and should be part of any reasoned debate. But, something more is going on here, and anger is at its roots. For example, anti-immigration groups rose to almost 80 percent during 2009.

Though surging tea parties are not widely considered extremist groups, their rhetoric is tinged with radicalism, conspiracy theories and racism.

According to Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at SPLC, the Conservative Political Action Conference held this February was co-sponsored by the likes of the John Birch Society and the fairly new group Oath Keepers, a Patriot organization. Both have Web sites that vow to honor the Constitution in questionable ways.

For the record, both of these groups, as well as the National Socialist American Labor Party and North East White Pride, have a presence in my home state of Maine.

There is ongoing cause for alarm when we consider that since President Obama became our nation’s leader, so-called right-wing extremists have been responsible for murdering six law enforcement officers. Skinheads and others have been arrested in alleged plots to assassinate our country’s president.

According to Potok, a Brockton, Mass., man, charged with murdering two black people and planning to kill as many Jewish people as possible on the day after Obama’s inauguration, told police that he had learned on the Web that a genocide was under way against whites.

People are hurting on all levels in this country, and many are consequently looking for some one to blame.

When these complex emotions are mixed with inherent racism, ethnic hatred, homophobia, sexism and religious zealotry, you get hate groups who only have “groupthink” to guide them through their misery.

One of the most threatening aspects of these kinds of groups is how they attract increasing numbers of followers with veiled talk about patriotism and protection of the Constitution, when what they are really doing is garnering power over society for themselves, which argues against the citizen rights that many of them espouse.

Too many of these groups don’t want to make things better for all Americans. They just want to create more chaos and further fan the flames of intolerance, hatred and fear in an already troubled human landscape.

It is very much like waving a red cape in front of a bull. The reaction is mindless and violent.

People have the right to form groups, organize, take action and speak their views to the public.

But when their messages and behavior are hurtful and filled with bigotry and intolerance, the line must be drawn.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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