TONY McALEER TELLS a story about one of the other founders of Life After Hate, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. McAleer’s colleague was being served at McDonald’s by an elderly African-American woman who saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. She looked at him, and said, “Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
That seed germinated for years until the man left white nationalism and dedicated himself to helping others leave.
“The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for those who have no compassion,” McAleer told Sojourners in an interview in his native Vancouver, British Columbia. “But those are the people who need it the most.” And given the number of such people attracted to such ideas in the wake of a certain presidential election, we all need pointers in how to deter folks from the fringes of what is now called the alt-right and what was once called neo-Nazism.
McAleer was for years a leading communicator of neo-Nazi ideas via television appearances and web design: “My nickname was Goebbels,” he said. That’s hard to imagine now. McAleer speaks with confidence, but not about the evils of immigration or the glories of the white race. Rather, he works to deconstruct the psychology of hatred, which he once knew intimately from the inside. Now he seeks to help free others from it.
His time as a white nationalist was not without real, material harm. In 1998 a Sikh man named Nirmal Singh Gill was stomped to death in the parking lot of a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, in Surrey, B.C. McAleer was not involved, directly. In another sense, “I can’t say I contributed zero percent to that.” He had recruited people into white nationalism who subsequently recruited the murderers. And this was no accident. “I could say I only contributed ideas. But the end result of those ideas, unchecked, is murder,” he said. There has been some subsequent reconciliation. McAleer has met with Gill’s son-in-law, who he said has offered to translate McAleer’s forthcoming book into Punjabi.
How do we transform more angry young white men from murder to reconciliation?
Out of the shadows
In 2016, the number of hate groups in the U.S. increased for a second year in a row, including a tripling of the number of anti-Muslim groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. These groups received a boost from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Suddenly, groups that mainstream Americans might have thought fringe were whispering in the president’s ear.
McAleer used to belong to such groups when they were skinheads in leather jackets, before they grew their hair out, put on ties, and launched websites with seemingly innocuous names. How did we get in this fix, and how do we get out of it?
McAleer got out with his communications skills. He had designed a website for a white nationalist recording label in exchange for a share of the profits, and he noticed the income bump. A friend joked what an advantage he would have in the marketplace outside of white extremism. “You’ve been trying to sell Nazism and Adolf Hitler. But people actually want life insurance.” McAleer became a successful financial planner.
But most people can’t leave so easily. Thus groups such as Life After Hate have received media and government attention, including an Obama administration Department of Homeland Security grant, which now may never arrive. “Law enforcement recognizes it can’t arrest its way out of this problem,” McAleer said.
Contrary to some storylines from Washington, McAleer said, “This is not only ‘radical Islamic terror.’” He points to violence by white extremists from Oklahoma City to recent murders in Kansas and New York. As media is often loathe to point out, 9/11 was not the beginning of the country’s experience with terror—African Americans have faced the multiheaded beast of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow for centuries.
Life After Hate is unlikely to dislodge someone who is fully and ideologically committed to a hate group. But many people are wobblier in their commitment—and these it can reach, through social media, YouTube videos (one of which won an Emmy), personal contact, and more. The group also conducts research on who is susceptible to extremism and has found that the key factors are disconnection and childhood trauma.
Journey to the extremes
Unlike some who join extremist groups, McAleer was an upper-middle-class kid, with a physician father who provided for his family well on the tony west side of Vancouver. But his father was also absent, physically and emotionally. As an 11-year-old, McAleer walked in on his father with another woman. “I’m not the first kid to experience adultery,” he said. “And it doesn’t excuse my later actions.”
McAleer attended an all-boys Catholic school, where he was bullied. “Again, not a unique story,” he said. He sidled up to and joined the bullies. “It’s like being a pufferfish—you make yourself look big.” He became as violent as any of the others and found respect, of a sort. “If I had been captain of the football team, I could have had all the attention, acceptance, and significance of not being powerless or unlovable. But I wasn’t a jock.”
Identity is a complex matter—occasionally harmless, often life-giving, sometimes death-dealing. Civil rights activist John Perkins said the way to minister to a gang member isn’t to tell them to give up on gang life—it’s to provide a new gang.
McAleer once figured he’d be dead in a coming race war before he was 30. “And I was okay with that,” he said. Is there any organization—some new gang—that can compete with that sort of zeal for martyrdom?
American History Fight Club
British Columbia would seem an unlikely petri dish for white nationalist hate. In this way, it’s instructive for Americans in the wake of the Trump election. B.C. prides itself on being the most liberal and inclusive province of a quite liberal and inclusive nation (naturally, such descriptions throw shade south of the 49th parallel).
“I guess you could say I had oppositional disorder,” McAleer said of reacting against what he considered British Columbia “PC” tolerance. His father experienced the blitz firsthand as a child in England, but McAleer had a poster of Hitler in his room. As others disapproved, he doubled down. “What’s the opposite of love? I’d rather have had bad attention from my dad than none at all.”
McAleer’s anger and rage rotted into neo-Nazism—a process he sees being echoed in Western societies writ large: “Unresolved anger always expresses itself in violence.”
McAleer claims to have predicted Trump’s ascension a year before the election. He kept hearing people say, “Trump says what I think but am afraid to say.” Brexit led the way, of course. And in both cases folks in major international financial centers such as London, New York, and Los Angeles couldn’t understand what was happening in the country around them, let alone respond.
But the disconnection a kid on Canada’s West Coast once felt is now multiplied into the tens of millions. “Populism is the check-engine light in the car. You don’t like that it turns on, but you have to deal with it,” he said.
In both the U.K. and the U.S., the Left insisted everything was fine; only xenophobes could think otherwise, and anyway their proposed policies of slightly more government largesse was better than their opponents’ promises to smash stuff. The smashers, of course, won. “Historians,” McAleer said, “will rank the ‘basket of deplorables’ comment with ‘let them eat cake.’”
Gen X white males like McAleer resonated with films such as Fight Club and American History X in a reaction against bourgeois upbringings that asked nothing other than continually improving as consumers. Death-dealing as it is, neo-Nazism has the odd virtue of asking people to stand out from their peers in the name of something unpopular. Something else—something much healthier and humanizing—also asks for difficult personal commitment: having a child. “It’s safe to love a child,” McAleer said. “They’re not capable of shame, ridicule, or rejection. Until they’re teenagers.”
At age 23, McAleer was a single father of two children. “And back in the ’90s, you got a lot of kudos for that,” he laughed. What you don’t get is a paycheck, and fascist proclivities do tend to limit employment opportunities. “For the first time in my life, I was making decisions for someone other than myself.” He realized that others in the extremist groups didn’t care if he was dead at 30. But his children needed him. “I rationalized that to do something for the white race, I should ensure that these children survive.” Baby steps.
For McAleer the activist, disengagement from hate groups is the first stage. Folks can leave extremist movements with their ideologies relatively intact. There is time later to take those on. But beginning with a critique of ideas won’t usually deradicalize anyone. What might?
“It’s incredibly powerful to receive compassion from someone you’ve dehumanized,” he said, telling the story of the McDonald’s employee. At a friend’s urging, McAleer himself went to a counselor for the first time in his life. As he laid out his neo-Nazi past, the therapist smiled. “What?” McAleer asked. “You don’t know?” the therapist responded. “I was born Jewish.”
McAleer figures that he and his therapist, Dov Baron, spent some 1,000 hours together in therapy, events, and workshops—they both speak on the leadership circuit. It took this relationship with a Jewish therapist for a former skinhead to learn he was loveable, to bring the healing that is a necessary step beyond disengagement.
Baron encouraged McAleer to tell others about his experiences. He wasn’t ready. Who wants to hear that their financial adviser is a former neo-Nazi? Finally, by 2012, he was ready. “I only lost one client,” he said. “They were Jewish. I should have gone and told them in person before I went public, but I was ashamed. I learned something about vulnerability.” Others have stayed and his business has prospered—helping to fund the work of Life After Hate.
Something more beautiful
So, he is asked, how do we apply your experiences society-wide? Not everyone gets 1,000 hours with a Jewish therapist. “But the Big Mac only cost $1.69!” he insists—small, everyday gestures matter. He encounters that objection a lot—after a Life After Hate workshop, one angry questioner said, “We need legislation, not compassion!” There is a place for both, but McAleer prefers to talk about “internal legislation.” He analogizes by talking about the way culture has changed regarding food: Restaurants now have healthy options; grocery chains make a killing off organic kale—offering something more beautiful is more effective, eventually, than simply criminalizing the ugly.
McAleer tells the story of Life After Hate’s work with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was teetering toward anti-Islam extremism. McAleer 's team took him to meet the imam at the community’s local Islamic center, to break down stereotypes and receive compassion from someone the vet was in danger of dehumanizing.
He speaks of Life After Hate’s birth at a Summit Against Violent Extremism sponsored by Google Ideas in Dublin in 2011. Former extremists gathered from all over the world: FARC guerillas and government muscle, radical Israeli settlers and Mujahideen, IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force. One pair, from Nigeria, featured a formerly radical imam and a Catholic priest whose hand the imam had cut off.
It is crucial for social healing to gather both victims and victimizers: “You can’t have this conversation without the voices” of those mistreated, McAleer said. He tells of an IRA member meeting a woman who lost her leg to a bomb. He asked where and when it happened. She told him. He quickly said, “That wasn’t my unit,” and walked away. But then he stopped. Turned around. And then, McAleer relates, he walked back over to the woman, saying, “I have to take accountability for this.” It’s human nature not to want to accept healthy shame, McAleer said.
Life Without Hate refounded itself based on the Dublin conference. It had previously been a website featuring stories of those unlearning hate. Its new mission is “to inspire individuals and communities to a place of compassion and forgiveness for themselves and for all people.”
McAleer is not partisanly inclined along U.S. lines (“I had the luxury of voting for Trudeau”). But he does worry about U.S. politics—when America sneezes, the world catches cold, as the old saying goes. In the public at large, McAleer sees a deeper intertwining of identity and ideology. He’s not surprised to see that in extremists—their views are who they are, so they existentially cannot discuss them with someone not in the group. But now the intertwining of ideology and identity is found not just on the fringes. “In a healthy society, there’s dialogue,” McAleer said, “and people can get their views out, and there’s a healthy release of that steam.” Repress it, and it erupts.
I ask if that’s what Life Without Hate is trying to do—offer a healthy release of steam. McAleer shakes his head at the mechanical image. “We try to help people reconnect with their humanity”—first their own unresolved pain and sense of being unlovable, then that of others whom they’ve mistreated, whose pre-emptive offer of grace often sets the whole process going.
Because we’re all so much better than this.