People who commit hate crimes against minorities often assert they are protecting others, believing they have support for their actions.
A new study suggests that such support does exist – and can be subtle and insidious.
Not everyone who actively supports supremist causes makes their views publicly known, the researchers say, but these “casual sympathisers” may reveal them by downplaying hate crimes that are in line with their own prejudices or concerns.
They may even claim to be unsure of a perpetrator’s motives, despite expressed intent to target specific minority groups.
“People may be sympathetic to violent extremism when it serves their own interests,” write N Pontus Leander, from the University of Gronigen in The Netherlands, and co-authors in a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Extreme nationalism, violent extremism and prejudice are intensifying in Western democracies, and the researchers cite a number of high-profile examples in their paper, including the 2019 massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
They say their study was prompted by the lack of public consensus about the motives of people who commit such crimes.
They conducted separate psychological surveys of more than 2300 people within 30 days of mass shootings in the US, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
These included questions about what participants thought might have motivated the mass shootings, such as “hatred of others”, rated on scales ranging from “very doubtful” to “very possible”.
Statements about the Jewish, Islamic and Hispanic minority groups were measured by prejudice scales or perceived threat by immigrants, and feelings of disempowerment in society with statements such as, “Not much is done for people like me in America”.
Participants’ degree of ethnic or religious nationalism was assessed by their extent of agreement with statements such as, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” or “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?”.
The researchers say the results confirmed a clear pattern of hate crime judgements being biased by prejudice, victimised feelings of disempowerment and white/Christian ideologies.
They conclude that there are supremist sympathisers who hesitate to acknowledge hate crimes, “in part because they want recognition for their own sense of victimisation that lends them value and significance”.
While these supporters won’t necessarily say it outright, the team suggests, their hidden sentiments could help perpetuate such violent massacres.
“[P]erpetrators and sympathisers need not openly collude, or even agree on the means, to advance the shared goal of preventing the empowerment of other groups,” they write.
“Future perpetrators of mass violence may interpret the downplaying of hate crimes as tacit social support for their cause.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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