In normal times — that is, up until about three weeks ago — white supremacists have taken to internet platforms to share familiar racist messages and threats of violence against Jews and others.
Now, with the coronavirus raging, neo-Nazis and their ilk see a new opportunity to spread hate — almost literally — by attacking Chinese people, cheering on the virus, and, in one of the most disturbing trends, encouraging followers who have contracted the disease to intentionally spread the virus among Jews.
ABC News reported that the FBI’s New York office alerted local police agencies last Thursday that “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.” Some suggested they spread the disease to Jews by going to “any place they may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship,” according to the FBI.
In a statement, Evan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president for the Northeast Division, called the report “deeply disturbing, but not entirely surprising. We know that extremists historically will attempt to seize on moments of national or international crisis to push conspiracy theories or even advocate for violence.”
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen has sent a memo to federal prosecutors and others saying that “purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19” is prohibited by federal terrorism laws.
“Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ … such acts potentially could implicate the nation’s terrorism-related statutes,” wrote Rosen, according to Politico. “Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated.”
Bernstein said that over the past few months the ADL has been monitoring online activity on fringe websites that addressed the coronavirus.
“We have seen extremists — and including white supremacists — talk about how they are going to use this virus as a weapon against law-enforcement, the Jewish community, African-Americans and others — ideas consistent with the extremist concept of accelerationism,” he said.
In one posting on the free chat app Telegram, someone wrote: “If any of you get this, I expect you to spend as much time in public as possible with our enemies. Maybe visit your local FBI field office and make sure their door handles are all to our specification.”
But is any of this anything more than idle, albeit odious, chatter?
The FBI said in a statement: “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, FBI field offices routinely share information with their local law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve. These products are intended to be informative in nature, and as such, they contain appropriate caveats to describe the confidence in the sourcing of information and the likelihood of the assessment. Additionally, when written at a local level, these products will note that the perspective offered may be limited to the field office’s area of responsibility.”
Whether the threats are legit or not, one Jewish leader, recalling the shooting attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., wasn’t waiting to find out.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, urged that members of the National Guard be activated to Jewish neighborhoods to “prevent the purposeful infection of Jewish New Yorkers” by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
And Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit group Integrity First for America, said in a statement that the use of social media by white supremacists to call for, and plan, violent attacks is not new. She said organizers used social media to “meticulously plan” the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“This is their MO: utilize social media to inspire and promote violence, in whatever form it takes, in the furtherance of their vile agenda,” she said. “We’re grateful that law enforcement identified this latest plan – and it only underscores the ways in which white supremacist terrorism remains one of the gravest threats to our national security, even and especially during a pandemic.”