On Jan. 10, the body of a 19-year-old college student named Blaze Bernstein was found in a shallow grave in a park in Orange County, California, with more than 20 stab wounds. Bernstein, who was visiting his parents on winter break and would later be described in tributes as a sensitive young man who loved writing and gourmet food, had been reported missing after missing a dentist appointment eight days earlier.
Two days after Bernstein’s body was found, a 20-year-old former high school classmate named Samuel Woodward was arrested for his murder.
Police have not yet given a motive for the murder of Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, or determined whether it should be considered a hate crime. But Woodward told police that Bernstein tried to kiss him when they were in his car together. And, one source told ProPublica, Woodward “was as anti-Semitic as you can get.”
ProPublica revealed Friday that Woodward was a member of a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division, considered to be relatively small but outsize in its hatred. With that revelation, those monitoring far-right hate groups noted that members of this specific neo-Nazi group are alleged to have committed five murders nationwide in the past year.
A glance at the Atomwaffen website—an unsettling but juvenile site that plays on the dramatic imagery of the Third Reich and apocalyptic video games—shows that even beyond its hateful ideology, the group exists to prime young men for violence. It appears to target these angry young men with promises of “hunting, adventuring, and … urban exploring,” as well as “militant training” in support of its goals of fascism and racial violence.
Its website complains that the “failure of democracy and capitalism has given way to the Jewish oligarchies and the globalist bankers” and promises real-life action (“no keyboard-warriorism”). It celebrates Hitler and Charles Manson as its heroes. According to ProPublica, its ultimate goal is to overthrow the U.S. government “through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.”
Woodward traveled to Texas to attend a three-day training camp—or as the ADL calls it, a “hate camp”—that taught him skills related to hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and survival, according to ProPublica’s report. One person told ProPublica that Woodward had organized members of the extremist group in California.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Atomwaffen Division came into existence only in 2016 and is apparently the most violent group to emerge as part of a recent rise of far-right hate groups. (ProPublica dated it back slightly further to 2015 and estimated it numbers around 80 members.) Its members have participated in other white supremacist rallies, according to the ADL, and they are “scattered around the country.” The ADL, which tracks the actions of anti-Semitic groups, reports Atomwaffen Division occasionally distributes hateful flyers around college campuses. It has, according to ProPublica, grown quickly since the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Bernstein’s murder is the fifth allegedly connected to this extremist group.
Scott Fricker, 48, and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, 43 were allegedly killed in Reston, Virginia, shortly before Christmas by a 17-year-old neo-Nazi who had been dating their daughter. They had warned their daughter against a relationship with the boy, who espoused anti-Semitic and anti-gay views. The girl had reportedly broken off the relationship in the days before the teenage boy shot her parents and himself. (The boy survived and was charged with two counts of murder.)
HuffPost tracked down the Twitter account belonging to the boy and reported that “it was with Atomwaffen Division that [he] seemed most taken.” According to HuffPost, the teenager had been tweeting about a book republished by the Atomwaffen that, in effect, called for Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter race war. He also tweeted about hating transgender people and wanting to shoot Jews.
Another, bizarre drama played out in Tampa, Florida, last summer among a group of young Atomwaffen members. An 18-year-old named Devon Arthurs confessed to killing two of his roommates in May after he had converted to a radical version of Islam—after already belonging to Atomwaffen. Arthurs said he killed his roommates, also Atomwaffen members, because they disrespected his conversion. A fourth roommate, also a member, was subsequently arrested for stockpiling bomb-making materials. He had kept a photo of the Oklahoma City bomber on his dresser, according to the New York Times.
Arthurs “went from communist to national socialism to hyper-pragmatic capitalism to full ISIS,” one neo-Nazi who knew him online told Vice News. The way the members of Atomwaffen described Arthurs, and their group, to Vice indicated that the form the extremism took didn’t matter as much as its degree, that they were all “introverts that didn’t really connect with the ‘outside’ world”—an idea reflected in many profiles of violent extremists and white supremacists in America.
The debate over whether these extremist groups truly drive violence with their ideologies or the violence arises simply because they attract young, antisocial men already inclined toward violence—and whether the question even matters—has consumed much media attention in the past year.
But the existence of organizations such as Atomwaffen have clearly encouraged and shaped real violence. According to the ADL, Atomwaffen groups have been reported in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, and Wisconsin. The targets in its hateful propaganda include black people, LGBT people, Jews, and Muslims.
As Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote in Slate, “the murder of law enforcement officials and innocent civilians by race obsessives, anti-government paranoiacs, and other believers in white fringe movements has been depressingly common” over the past two decades. These attacks were carried out by people on the fringe of society. It’s worth considering what emboldened groups of these young men could do when they no longer consider themselves the fringe.