Mike Katzman is blunt about why he enlisted in October 1942.
“I wanted to kill Nazis,” Katzman recalls of his 22-year-old self. “I didn’t know the specifics then, but I knew they were torturing our people, and there was extermination.”
He’s 93 now and one of the few remaining local Jewish war veterans from World War II. He never did face a Nazi during the war, staying stateside working with gun turrets on B-24s.
He shouldn’t have to face a Nazi now.
But a group touting itself as the National Socialist Movement will be in Kansas City this weekend. Some members live in the area. Others are expected from out of state.
Their ideology is as galling to Katzman as it should be to all Kansas Citians. He’s astounded that there are people in younger generations who enjoy dressing up in Nazi uniforms, parading around giving Hitler salutes and preaching all sorts of nonsense about white supremacy.
Katzman will proudly attend a peaceful counter-rally at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Liberty Memorial — away from where the neo-Nazis are expected to be. The former Golden Gloves champion admits he retains a bit of his younger, hot-headed self, but he knows that racists have freedom-of-speech rights, too.
The last thing Kansas City needs is a confrontation, a brawl to break out. A group of local Latinos are courting just that with plans for a protest near where the neo-Nazis will hold an event Saturday. It’s a misguided move, a recipe for disaster that will serve up publicity for the neo-Nazis on a platter.
The right response is coming from a wide range of clergy, Kansas City Council members and human rights leaders who will attend the Liberty Memorial rally, joined by voices pressing for immigration reform, as the NSM has announced an anti-immigrant focus for its gatherings.
But here’s the thing: There are few Katzmans left. And most of the Liberty Memorial rally lineup will be familiar faces of longtime civil and human rights leadership. More than just the usual suspects need to show up.
The media always dance a tricky line with hate groups. They crave publicity, and too often we give it to them. The Liberty Memorial rally needs to dominate the news, and high attendance can ensure it.
For those who doubt the need to attend, a bit of background. Years ago, many stories were produced about two Ku Klux Klan brothers who lived in the area. The Mahons liked pitching that they had far more members than ever, leafleting, holding cross burnings, other shenanigans.
Harmless fools? Well, one of them, Dennis Mahon, is doing time in federal prison for a case where a pipe bomb was sent in 2004 to an African-American diversity director in Scottsdale, Ariz. The victim could have had his head blown off when he opened the package, but in a fluke of how he held it, he suffered mostly burns to his hand and arm.
Here is the anticipated NSM schedule: Friday night members will sit around and talk among themselves, probably checking into a local hotel under assumed names. Away from reasonable people, they’ll get all riled with talk about “foreigners” and “political correctness” that they think knocks white people from a superior racial pedestal.
See, in their minds, they are being preyed upon. I’ve interviewed many of these sorts through the years. It’s never their own lack of education, addictions, mental health issues, dysfunctional relationships or social ineptness that keeps them from succeeding in life. It’s always those other people, the ones with different skin tones and religions, who hold them back.
Saturday night it’s thought they’ll set a large wooden swastika ablaze on private property. No kidding — they tend to favor preening and prancing.
There’s nothing new here, folks. These groups have long existed, and unfortunately they will continue to pop up in the future, morphing from the KKK to skinheads to Aryan and militia groups — they go by many titles. But the message is pretty consistent: hatred of Jews, hatred of immigrants, hatred of black and Latino people. Grand conspiracy theories usually hold the ideology aloft.
What’s different this go-round is the opportunity to send a strong peaceful message that their irrational views are not supported by Kansas Citians.
The baton is passing, people. Katzman and other veterans like him did their job to trounce evil during World War II. It’s time for the rest of us to step up and take a stand.