Of all the coverage post-Charlottesville, one CBC radio interview stays with me in particular. Megan Williams of The Current interviewed a former member of the Canadian White Nationalist group known as Aryan Nation, Tony McAleer.
The host mentioned a photo, now seen around the world, of a young, white man who was part of the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend, and played an audio clip of an interview with Peter Cvjetanovic. She asked: ‘What do you hear in his words?
Tony McAleer replied: ‘Fear. As human beings, we operate from one of two places. We operate from love or we operate from fear.
‘When the U.S. census came out in 2000 showing a demographic shift, predicting a white minority within 40-50 years, there was a spike in membership in and support for white supremacist groups, based on the narrative that white genocide is impending, and their ability to control their own destiny is disappearing—and it’s simply not true. They carry this irrational fear about. I know from having dissected my own personal history.
‘Deep down inside these are fearful people and they’re driven to these groups by a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and coming from a place where they don’t have that within themselves. The fuel driving it all is toxic shame. It’s really less about the ideology of why people join these groups than it is about anger – for reasons unrelated to ideology. But the ideology gives them a framework within which that they can try and make sense of it and blame others. But it’s a very false narrative.’
The interviewer asked for clarification about ‘toxic shame’. Tony referred to a University of Maryland study that showed that ‘the number one correlated factor in the history of somebody joining a violent extremist group is childhood trauma.’ Trauma creates ‘an unhealthy sense of self at a much deeper level – a toxic shame.’ ISIS recruits, he continued are not scholars of the Qur’an but troubled youth, looking for meaning, belonging, purpose. Tony describes his own childhood trauma in a well-to-do home; ‘I went out into the world emotionally hungry and I made very poor choices. Ideology was not the cause but it ‘gave me permission to act out the violence and anger that was deep inside of me.’ He cautions, however, that childhood trauma is a key factor but not a predictor.
The task (of Life After Hate) is to reconnect them to their humanity. I believe that the level to which we are willing to dehumanise another human being, for any reason, is a reflection of how disconnected from our own humanity that we are.
‘Ideology and identity become intertwined,’ he said. And, referring to his work with an organisation called Life After Hate that assists people leave white supremacist groups, ‘if you attack the ideology, you also attack the identity, defences go up and they shut down.’ The task, he said, is to reconnect them to their humanity. ‘I believe that the level to which we are willing to dehumanise another human being, for any reason, is a reflection of how disconnected from our own humanity that we are.’
In our work with Partera, we understand that the same fuel that drives a white supremacist ignites social and political violence of all sorts – and the task remains the same: how do we reconnect people with their humanity – and with the humanity of the other over what may seem like insuperable barriers? Is it possible to value the identity of the other without feeling threatened, that to do so somehow erodes my own? Whether it’s Naga, Rengma, Bodo, Kharbi or Garo in North East India – where more than 600,000 people have been killed in violence that pits Christian tribes against Christian tribes, indigenous against the Muslim migrant – or in Mindanao where Moros, Lumads (indigenous) and Christian settlers struggle for land, resources and autonomy – or Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan, Kurds and Turks – mantles of religion or tribe are drawn over essentially economic conflicts, staking out meta-meaning, deepening fears and raising recruitment potential. And here in my own country, the echoes of the uncovering happening to the south of us are clear.
I recall an encounter with a paramilitary soldier on the banks of the River Opón in Colombia in the early 1990s. I was there with Christian Peacemaker Teams, accompanying villagers in the rebuilding of their communities newly-reclaimed from the ELN. As his heavily-armed compañeros scrambled up the banks of the river, making themselves at home in front of the terrified villagers, some of us engaged the apparent leader in conversation. After a polite request that they move on, I asked him if he had children. I pulled out photos of my own children and closed enough of the space between us to show him Emily and Gillian. He replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘Boys, girls?’ I asked. I still remember: ‘Three boys and a girl.’ ‘They must miss you. Do you get home often?’ He looked down at the red soil at his feet and mine. ‘Do you know what you want?’ I asked. To my surprise, he raised his head and said, ‘Peace.’ ‘Then we have something in common. That’s why we’re here, as well.’ In no way deluded as to the capacity for atrocity of this group, stories of the week before sharp in my mind, I asked, ‘But I don’t understand your methods, how you get to peace with guns. Wouldn’t it be great if they could all be tossed into the Opón.’
Why not love? Why does hate seem easier, more energising for some? Tony McAleer concluded the interview with Martin Luther King: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Fear mars us, mars me, emerging in disguise as anger, hatred and violence against others. Love makes the impossible possible. Grief was my response to Charlottesville, a ripping, tearing grief. I give the last word to African-American poet, Adrienne Maree Brown, who invites, in response to the UNCOVERING, both grief (and outrage…) and grace-filled collaboration.
With thanks for drawing my attention to this piece of his artwork, see friend and colleague, Ken Sehested’s, Prayer & Politiks.