Neo-Nazis threatened to use a shotgun to rape me

In a new book, Talia Lavin reveals how she went undercover into the dark web to turn the tables on her tormentors


teenager girl suffering cyberbullying scared and depressed exposed to cyber bullying and internet harassment feeling sad and vulnerable in internet stalker danger and abuse problem

There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon that I like: It’s from the early days of the internet, 1993, and it features a pooch sitting in an office chair at a blocky, Mac-looking computer, talking to another dog who’s looking up at him, bemused. The caption: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Well, that may be true. But on the internet nobody knows you’re a Jew, either, unless you announce it. And while writing this book, for the first time in my life, I spent a whole lot of time, a full year, not telling people I was a Jew, and listening to what they said when I didn’t.

In order to look as deeply as I could into the world of white nationalism, I had to leave my own identity behind as often as not.

In real life, I’m a schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a mother in a Philip Roth novel, and brassy personal politics that aren’t particularly sectarian but fall considerably to the left of Medicare for All. Over the course of writing this book, I had to leave my own skin. And sometimes what I found made me want to never return to it.

[…] In mid-June 2019, I opened a far-right chat room I had been monitoring for a few weeks on the messaging app Telegram. The chat room was called “The Bunkhouse”—I’d been informed by a source that it was filled with particularly violent rhetoric. And at four o’clock in the morning, hazy and sleepless, I found a discussion in the chat room about whether I was too ugly to rape.

For the previous hour or so, members of the Bunkhouse had been casually discussing sex with Jewish women. “I condone and endorse consensual relations with yentas,” one wrote. (Yenta is a Yiddish word for “busybody” that has been coopted by some white supremacists as a slur for Jewish women writ large.) “But not BREEDING,” wrote another. One minute later, a user asked: “Would anyone rape Talia Lavin?”

“I’d rape her with my double barrel,” responded a user who went by the moniker “James Mason,” an homage to an American neo-Nazi and child pornographer most famous for Siege, a book in which he advocates racist terrorism.

Most users found me too ugly to rape — “Talia Lavin’s appearance makes me viscerally ill,” “I can smell her through the monitor,” “Talia Levin [sic] would make me wanna throw up my intestines.” The conversation ended with an oblique expression of a desire to kill me. “No need to go into detail here,” wrote one user about threats of violence. “Like anyone is ever going to think gee im glad we kept Talia lavin with us,” responded another.

That night I nursed too much vodka and thought about how strange it was that a complete stranger had expressed the desire to rape me with a double-barreled shotgun. It’s not like they knew I was lurking and reading that particular chat; I was a topic of discussion in absentia. I bemoaned the paucity of my own body of work, wishing that I was a worthier opponent — someone who truly merited this kind of vitriol. I’d written a feature for the New Yorker and another for the New Republic on far-right shenanigans, along with a few columns and op-eds for the Washington Post and HuffPost. While I’d done my best with the pieces, they hardly amounted to a substantive blow against a rising American fascist movement. I was mostly just a loudmouth on Twitter: Why was I taking up real estate in their heads? A member of the chat room started messaging me on Twitter, sharing sexually explicit fantasies about me having sex with dogs, and sharing the screenshots with the Bunkhouse, not knowing that I was watching.

The source who had initially recommended the group for my re-search had noted that it was full of “Siegeheads” — people who closely followed the work of neo-Nazi James Mason. Mason advocated terrorism to topple the American social order. The Bunkhouse was a group comfortable with discussing violence; actively militating for a race war; and prone to obsessive harassment and vendettas. Several members were part of the “Bowlcast,” a podcast named for the bowl haircut sported by Dylann Roof, the young man who entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and murdered nine parishioners. Over and over again, members of the chat shared photos of Roof, often with a bandanna photoshopped onto his head that read kill jews. On June 17, 2019, they celebrated the anniversary of “Saint Roof’s” murders, and punctuated it with a kind of prayer litany of white-supremacist murder:

Heil Hitler.

Heil Bowers [Robert Bowers, who allegedly murdered eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018].

Sieg Heil.

Heil Roof.

Heil Breivik [Anders Breivik, a Norwegian neo-Nazi who murdered seventy-seven in a massive terror attack in 2011].

Heil McVeigh [Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber].

There was no one to de-escalate these men; it was a private group, one that existed for them to egg one another on, to venerate mass murderers and perhaps one day to emulate them. And over and over again, they posted my selfies, a photo of my feet, an old Google result about my dismal performance on the game show Jeopardy! They speculated about what my feet smelled like, how disgusting my body was. They didn’t know I was lurking in their chat room; I was fair game regardless.

Feeling distressed, I texted Kelly Weill, a friend who works as a reporter on extremism for the Daily Beast, telling her my doubts about my own worthiness as an opponent to white supremacists.

But Weill’s response indicated just how small the cadre of journalists and activists who engage with the American far right is—and how such work or speech can attract obsessive attention from extremists.

“These people see us as antagonists in the big character drama of their lives,” she wrote to me.

To be publicly Jewish and female, and engaged in antifascist rhetoric— even in the form of caustic tweets — rendered me a vivid character in the imaginations of extremists. It placed me at the end of a hypothetical gun barrel, wielded by a stranger; thrust me deep into the thicket of racialized, antisemitic, and misogynist violence that made up the dark garden of their imaginations. Whatever extra humiliations I encountered were the price I paid for looking where others didn’t care to, and it mirrored everything I’d resolved to fight against: the deep hatred of Jews and of women; the casual disregard for human life; the endless stream of incitement toward violence, gun lust, and the humiliation of their enemies.

[…] My maternal grandparents, Esther and Israel Leiter, were born at the turn of the twentieth century in Galicia, a region that was then Poland but today is part of Ukraine. I was the child of a youngest child—my mother had been a surprise in my grandmother’s forties—and I never heard the story of their Holocaust survival from their own lips. What I heard were suggestive snatches of what had already become family legend: that they had survived in the woods; that they had joined with the partisans; that members of their party had been apprehended and killed by Nazi searchers.

[…] From what I knew—a story that took shape as my mother told me, piecemeal—the war had never left them entirely. My grandfather’s brilliant brothers had been rabbis, as he was, and he never stopped mourning their loss. During my mother’s childhood he was plagued by night terrors every night, and once or even twice a week, he would cry out, “Polizei!”—the German word for “police”—and herd his daughters out into the Brooklyn night. When they left the cramped apartment in Borough Park where my mother was raised, no longer capable of living on their own, my relatives discovered a cache of checks and bonds hidden under the floorboards of their bedroom.

They had always been ready to run. The fear of slaughter because they were Jews never left them.

[…] A Twitter follower of mine sent me a few screenshots from 8chan, a notorious anonymous message board that serves as a kind of sewer of the internet, a sprawling, chaotic channel for outright hate speech, dubious porn, and conspiracy theories, whose slogan is “Embrace infamy.” The thread I’d been linked to featured users hypothesizing about whether Jews are a different species. And it featured pictures of me—lots of them.

The thread was titled “the mysterious jew/Neanderthal skull” (sic), and it was a feast of pseudoscience and bizarre anti-Semitism, liberally spackled, of course, with mentions of the Rothschilds. The idea that Jews are not Homo sapiens, but in fact more closely related to Neanderthals, would explain “the reason why these jews view us as entirely different and separate from them, as if we’re literally different species,” wrote one user. “All the folklore about ‘people’ that feast on humans depicts the same large hooknose of the jew,” wrote another.

A third posted six pictures of me, juxtaposed against a crude diagram of homo neanderthalus. They were mostly old Twitter profile pictures: one from a photo session I’d done for a small Brooklyn blog and another from a 2015 appearance on Jeopardy!, my awkward smile inches from Alex Trebek’s weathered, handsome face.

“Neanderthal phenotype certainly isn’t defined by the skull shape alone,” wrote the anonymous user, below the photos of me. “Their body tended to be wide and broad and robust in comparison to more modern types such as Cro-Magnon.”

I looked down at myself and wondered if this was the reason I’d had so little success dieting. Once you start gazing into the abyss of the far right, pretty soon it turns its gaze right back on you.

[…] It’s nearly 3am in Ukraine, but my interlocutor hasn’t gone to sleep yet. His name is David, he lives in Kyiv, and he’s sending me videos about how to make a gun out of pipes. He’s trying to flirt with me. He’s Ukrainian, but he wants an American wife. He wants to make a whites-only United States, and he believes I may be his ticket to do that. I’m back in character as Ashlynn, only this time I’ve infiltrated the Vorherrschaft Division (Supremacy Division), a chat group composed of Americans and Europeans fixated on disseminating images of terror and discussing the need for a race war now.

I’m using the screen name “AryanQueen” to say hello to the most violent racists online. Vorherrschaft is one of several knockoffs of the widely feared white-supremacist terror group Atomwaffen Division that have sprung up in recent months. Atomwaffen means “atomic weapons” in German. The knockoff groups have Germanic names, organise primarily on Telegram, and traffic in the language of terror. (Another example is the Rapekrieg Division.)

I’ve decided to use a female identity in hopes of coaxing more information out of participants, and David is ready to oblige. His screen name is “Der Stürmer”, named after the favourite tabloid of the Nazi Party, and he admires Hitler openly — though his truest hero is Christchurch mosque mass shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like Tarrant himself, David has a preoccupation with all things American. He’d like to visit me in Iowa, and to establish his bona fides, he tells me he was once part of a group called “Cherniy Korpus”—Black Corps—a guerrilla military group that served as a forerunner to the Ukrainian far-right militia now known as the Azov Battalion. He tells me that he left in order to spread national socialist ideas throughout Ukraine, that he’s working an office job to afford ammo. He wants a white wife with traditional ideals. He shows me some photos of his militia garb and the gun he used on the front lines in the grinding Ukraine Russia war in Donbass.

I quickly find out that he is one of the administrators of a Ukrainian-language channel I’ve been monitoring for just under a year. Explicitly designed to evoke stochastic terror, it’s called “Brenton Tarrant’s Lads.”

He shows me photos of a Ukrainian translation he’s made of Tarrant’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” and tells me he’s printed and distributed hundreds of copies. The open-source intelligence website Bellingcat, which closely tracks the far right in Eastern Europe, had published a few months before an investigation of the translated booklet, documenting numerous selfies of men in Ukraine and Russia holding copies of the pamphlet—some reading it by the sea; a group of men holding it up while giving Hitler salutes; and an extremist antigay group that attacked marchers in Kyiv’s Pride Parade in 2019 encouraging its members to buy copies. The fish that had landed in my net unwittingly was surprisingly big: He was single-handedly aiding in the radicalisation of potentially thousands of men, disseminating a document that had already inspired copycat terror attacks. And he was proud of it.

‘Culture Warlords: Exposing the Dark Web of White Supremacy’ by Talia Lavin (Octopus Publishing Group, £11.92)

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