Nazis at a Seattle May Day rally.
Nazis at a Seattle May Day rally. RonGreer.Com /Shutterstock

As the internet has learned by now, alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof seems to have drawn some violent, racist inspiration from Washington State science-fiction writer Harold Covington and a "white separatist" group called the Northwest Front, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is based in Seattle. The NWF website also lists a PO Box with a downtown Seattle zip code. (The Front did not respond to requests for comment.)

I'm a little conflicted about giving folks like Covington and NWF any additional oxygen by continuing to circulate their names—and the portrait of Roof that is emerging in press reports suggests a deeply troubled young man with a chaotic upbringing and possible mental-health issues that had more to do with his mass murder than ideology. (Seattle has its own bitter history of troubled young men with guns, whether their delusions were personal, as in the 2012 Cafe Racer shootings, or perversely politicized, as in the 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.)

Roof's mental health notwithstanding, some members of the Ku Klux Klan are planning to rally at the South Carolina statehouse, saying Roof was "headed in the right direction." And Northwest white-power types have been much more visible in the past few weeks, from the guy wearing a swastika armband at a Seattle ferry terminal two days after the Charleston shootings to the sudden and bizarre appearance of racist skinheads who showed up to fight with anti-police-brutality demonstrators in Olympia.

This, according to Dr. Richard King of Washington State University, doesn't necessarily mean old-fashioned white-power groups are on the rise.

In fact, traditional white-power groups may be fading—the latest numbers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, King says, indicate that their numbers have dropped in Washington State in recent years. "Of course, such counts can be misleading," he adds. "The internet makes it possible for ideas to circulate and community to form in different ways than the past... Moreover, the unit of measurement that matters may have shifted (if Charleston, or Oklahoma City for that matter, are good examples) ,from the chapter (KKK) or compound (Aryan Nation) or gang (Aryan Brotherhood) to the lone actor."

But framing the white-power question in terms of rhetorically dramatic but ultimately marginal groups like the Northwest Front, King says, masks a deeper problem: "It suggests that racism is extraordinary—bad apples with bad ideas or bad feelings (hate) doing bad things—when in fact it is built into our society at a foundational level."

"Even without organized groups, it is here," he says. "It is online and it is in our communities."

King adds that it's still important to write about people like Harold Covington and Northwest Front—if only to try and balance the record, instead of letting them be the only ones who get to represent themselves. "Much white power is presented as peaceful, invisible, framed in code words, and cast as about love, justice, and heritage," King says. (Northwest Front, like other white separatist groups, models itself on the infamous "14 words" of David Lane*: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.")

But, as we know, it only takes one troubled kid—who can buy himself a gun—to translate empty online posturing into a massacre.

*Lane was a member of "The Order," a white nationalist group founded in Washington State, active in the '80s, and the inspiration for Steven Dietz's chilling—and excellent—1988 play God's Country.