AG HolderCiting recent killings in Arkansas, Kansas and the nation’s capital, Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said new hate crimes law were needed to stop what he called “violence masquerading as political activism.”

The attorney general’s call for Congress to act came as a civil rights coalition said there has been a surge in white supremacist activity since the election of the first African-American president and the economic downturn.

“Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed brazen acts of violence committed in places that many would have considered unthinkable,” Holder told the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

He cited separate attacks over a two-week period that killed a young soldier in Little Rock, an abortion provider in Wichita and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Federal agents and prosecutors already are involved in the local investigations of each attack.

The violence, Holder said, “reminds us of the potential threat posed by violent extremists and the tragedy that ensues when reasoned discourse is replaced by armed confrontation.”

“We will not tolerate murder, or the threat of violence, masquerading as political activism,” he said. “So let me be clear. The Justice Department will use every tool at its disposal to protect the rights ensured under our Constitution.”

Holder said that to stop such violence, Congress should pass an updated version of hate crimes legislation in order to more effectively prosecute those who commit violent attacks based on gender, disability or sexual orientation.

The growing number of hate crimes against Latinos also shows the need for tougher laws, Holder said.

Separately, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund issued a report saying white supremacist activity online spiked after Barack Obama’s election victory in November, and hate groups now use social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to spread their message.

The report reviewed hate crimes over nearly two decades.

“In the nearly twenty years since the 1990 enactment of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually — that’s nearly one every hour of every day,” the report said.

Hate crime statistics are compiled by the FBI.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.