Over winter break, a college student from my hometown went missing.
Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old at the University of Pennsylvania, disappeared after going to a park in Orange County, California with a friend late at night while home from college. Police officers and community volunteers scoured the area for days, circulating posts on social media and holding out hope that he would be found alive.
Less than a week later, they found his body buried at the edge of the park, right next to the elementary school. He had been stabbed 20 times.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward, a former high school classmate of Bernstein, was arrested and charged with murder, and authorities are considering whether to treat it also as a hate crime. It wasn’t a secret in our town that Woodward was a bigot of the worst kind: openly homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist.
What we didn’t know is that he belonged, according to a recent report, to the growing neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen—a group that has shot to the forefront of the white supremacist movement with its promises of violence, revolution, and an impending race war.
Woodward apparently joined the hate group in 2016 and attended a three-day training camp with other members in Texas. Wearing skull masks and making Nazi salutes, the group trained in handguns, assault rifles, and hand-to-hand combat in preparation for its aim of overthrowing the U.S. government.
The organization views whites as an oppressed race who are being overwhelmed by a rising tide of people of color. Jews are portrayed as a malevolent force seeking to orchestrate their downfall.
They first gained national attention last May, when 18-year-old Devon Arthurs, one of the founding members of Atomwaffen, was charged with murdering two of his roommates in Florida. Atomwaffen surfaced again when linked to a double homicide in Virginia, in which a 17-year-old member shot his girlfriend’s parents after they urged her to break up with him.
Bernstein’s death is the fifth high-profile killing connected to Atomwaffen in the past year.
Even though they are small—with an estimated 100 members nationwide—a combination of intense white nationalism, social media, and the recent neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville has made this group incredibly dangerous.
Young, angry, middle-class white youth are the exact demographic that this hate group targets. They appeal to a sense of patriotism and rebellion by presenting the American government as overrun by a Jewish “New World Order”—one that Atomwaffen alone can challenge by violent force.
Perhaps taking notes from its biggest idol, Adolf Hitler, the organization has learned to dumb down their argument: Good guys vs. bad guys. Repeating the same themes over and over again until they become reality.
Many of the leading online personalities of the neo-Nazis, including Woodward’s online persona as “Saboteur” on the website iFunny, use social media to disseminate aggressive and obscene hate speech or conspiracy theories.
“The whole point is to make something outrageous,” said Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi propaganda site The Daily Stormer. “It’s about creating a spectacle, a media spectacle that desensitizes people to those ideas. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
This isn’t all that attracts potential members to groups like Atomwaffen. Woodward himself was rumored to be aggressively homophobic partly because of his own closeted feelings. He told investigators that Bernstein kissed him on the lips as they sat in a parked car, and he pushed him away and called him a “faggot,” according to the affidavit.
These men—emotionally unstable, deeply violent and struggling with crises of identity — make an easy target for such neo-Nazi groups.
The five murders, so far, don’t appear to have been coordinated. Most of them seem to have arisen from domestic disputes, which only highlights the pattern of volatility and recklessness that is linked to young men who become immersed in white supremacist ideologies.
Like so many emotionally damaged young men, Woodward apparently tried to become something bigger than himself—something cruel, to cover up the vulnerability he couldn’t stand in himself. Fantasy overtook reality, and now a 19-year-old is dead.