Saturday, December 06, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
 Literary Calendar | Authors in Town | By Location | Hot Links |  
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Elinor Langer’s portrait of a ‘hate crime’
A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America
By Elinor Langer. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 416 pages, $26.

If you remember nothing of the November 12, 1988, murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in Portland, Oregon, you might remember an event that preceded it by just one day: the broadcast of a controversial Geraldo episode wherein the eponymous talk-show host had his nose broken when a program about young skinheads erupted (as all but planned) into a semi-contained riot. The connection between Geraldo’s broken nose and a young man murdered across the country is at once obvious and oblique, but it is one that Elinor Langer, in A Hundred Little Hitlers, is at pains that readers not make. Her study of the murder and its resulting trial shows us the danger of such broad sweeps of cause and effect: to make those all too easy connections is to reiterate the offense her book sets out to expose.

"Moral panic" is Langer’s apt description of the fury that engulfed herself and fellow Portlanders as the reality of the murder took hold. There were various connections between her community and the murderous gang East Side White Pride — one of whom "was a rock musician involved with a circle of Portland’s more bohemian writers and artists that included a number of people I knew," another "the recent homecoming king . . . and the son of a well-known civic activist whose good works also overlapped with that of friends and acquaintances of my own." A third was a neighbor. This immediacy helps explain how Langer (the author of a biography of Josephine Herbst) came to write her riveting chronicle, a compulsive search for meaning.

Early on, even before you learn the details of Seraw’s murder, long before you learn the twisting back stories of his killers, you’re apt to sense that this is not a typical take on an all too typical American story: the deliberate murder of a black man. Langer might have made it easier for herself and us by describing what happened as a lynching. But this would be an outrage too easily won, and it would force a more complicated (or perhaps a simpler) story into the traditional scapegoat mold of racialized ritual sacrifice. "The brutal killing of an Ethiopian man by white supremacist skinheads was terrible enough even if it began ‘haphazardly’ in the chance confrontation of a car carrying drunken Ethiopians and a car carrying drunken skinheads on a crowded street at the end of a long Saturday night." She refuses the lynching word because all her investigations point to the importance of "haphazardly."

Langer asks us to accept that this is murder in the passive voice, despite the fact that all the key players for a "hate crime" are assembled. She focuses on the chain of events this murder provoked. Even more terrible than the murder might be what happened when, after the killers’ plea bargain, a civil action against Tom Metzger — a California Neo-Nazi organizer linked to the Oregon skinheads by the most tenuous connection — was brought by celebrity trial lawyer Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Langer turns her attention to the public ablution that took place by means of this trial, where one murder was made to stand in for all racial murders, where one group of disorganized violent thugs was linked to a much larger web of extreme racial hate, the better to ignore the more insidious everyday sort.

These complications are worked through in a chilly, determined voice to produce a narrative that is at once murder mystery, trial journalism, social history, and morality tale. The figure of Mulugeta Seraw himself recedes; the story becomes bigger than his death. Even his vindication is a disgrace. When Morris Dees prevails and the jury finds Metzger guilty of causing the death of Seraw via his "agents" in Oregon, the $12.5 million awarded in damages reaches the victim’s family in Ethiopia in the form of a mere $100,000. Meanwhile, Dees’s organization uses the case to solicit millions of dollars in donations to his center.

This a brave and necessary book, and a demanding one. In exposing "the historical emptiness" of the "victory," Langer’s account avenges both the crime of Seraw’s murder and the attending crime of Metzger’s trial. It is a rare thinker who asks us to hold conflicting thoughts in mind. But this is no mere exercise of moral strength; it is our preparation for reckoning with the gravity of Langer’s assessment of the Neo-Nazi movement and her warning call to those fooled by "the illusion that something is being done about it."

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
Back to the Books table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group