Masculinity And U.S. Extremism: What Makes Young Men Vulnerable To Toxic Ideologies NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Tony McAleer, a former skinhead recruiter, about the trend of young men in the U.S. who turn to violent extremism. McAleer helped start the group, Life After Hate.

Masculinity And U.S. Extremism: What Makes Young Men Vulnerable To Toxic Ideologies

Masculinity And U.S. Extremism: What Makes Young Men Vulnerable To Toxic Ideologies

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Tony McAleer, a former skinhead recruiter, about the trend of young men in the U.S. who turn to violent extremism. McAleer helped start the group, Life After Hate.


The Islamberg plot wasn't the only threat that was thwarted last week. In Utah, a 27-year-old man was arrested on a terrorism charge after posting on social media about being a virgin and saying he wanted to become, quote, "the next mass shooter." What both in New York and Utah incidents have in common is the profile of those involved - young, white men. According to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, 98 percent of the extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018 were carried out by right-wing extremists, a large portion white supremacists. We wanted to explore further this issue of men, particularly young men in the U.S., who turn to violent extremism. And we're joined now by a man who understands this firsthand - Tony McAleer. He's a former organizer for the White Aryan Resistance. He left that life behind and helped then start Life After Hate. It's a group of former violent extremists committed to education and countering violent ideologies.

Welcome to the program.

TONY MCALEER: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it work for you? How were you lured into that world?

MCALEER: I wasn't so much lured. In a way, I went seeking it out. And I'm not saying that to excuse any of the things I did because I've done a lot of horrible things. But I'm trying to share with you the lens through which I made those decisions. I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a psychiatrist. But, you know, I walked in on my father when I was 10 with another woman. And that turned my world upside down. I rejected all the authority figures in my life. I went into sort of rebellion mode. And I went from this A, B student to a C, D student. My parents and the teachers got together and said, well, let's beat the grades into him. And so they tried to - you know, I got hit on the rear end with a yardstick every time I didn't get an A or B on major tests and assignments.

And all those times that I spent in that teacher's office getting hit on the rear end, to this day, I don't think I've ever felt more powerless in my entire life. So I got involved in the punk scene because I was really angry. And then, you know, when I came across the skinheads, they had what I didn't. And that was toughness. And that's what drew me to them initially was - my bullying survival skill growing up was befriend the bully, become the bully. And that's what I did because when I was with them, I was safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you hear these stories of these alleged attackers supposedly planning these attacks, what do you think?

MCALEER: Well, I think that when I was in the depths of my involvement with Aryan Nations and White Aryan Resistance and all of that, I had stockpiled weapons. Once you're that far into it, you become that far disconnected from your own humanity in the process of getting there - that human life, especially if it's not white, doesn't mean anything. You know, if you see yourself as very small and insignificant in the world deep down inside - you look at, you know, anyone who's done these mass killings in the name of the white race. They become legendary. And people want to emulate them. You know, when you've got nothing going on in your life, you know, the fantasy of going out in a blaze of glory to have your name forever etched in the history books, that can be enticing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you get out of this? - because it seems that young, white men, in many ways - on social media specifically nowadays, but in other ways - are sort of being targeted. And they're vulnerable to this kind of messaging. How do we prevent young men and boys from falling into extreme camps?

MCALEER: I mean, my case, ultimately, it was the birth of my children. You know, at the age of 20, I thought I'd be dead or in jail as a white revolutionary by the time I was 30. I was a father at 23. For the first time in my life, I started to make decisions for someone other than myself because I was a complete narcissist. And the crazy thing about children is their love is unconditional. They didn't care that I was a neo-Nazi. They didn't care that I had assault rifles in the closet. They don't see that. They just see the human that's interacting with them. And that's sort of what compassion does. And it allowed me to thaw. And when we're compassionate with someone, we hold up a mirror and allow them to see their humanity reflected back at them when they're incapable of seeing it on their own. And I think that's the power of compassion. It's at the power - it's - compassion is at the root of, you know, what we do at Life After Hate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I'm hearing you say, perhaps, also, is that there is a problem with the way we teach young men, specifically white, young men, that they need to be in the world, that there might not be a model for them to deal with these difficult feelings.

MCALEER: That's definitely part of it. I mean, who teaches white men? Most of the time, it's fathers. And who teaches those fathers? Their fathers' fathers. And so the thing about, you know, these negative attitudes is they cascade through generations, right? If my father is misogynist, if I observe my father belittling and treating my mom poorly and, you know, he puts stuff onto me, chances are I'm going to continue the family tradition. And, you know, I've seen that the way roles are transferred through generations that people and families have to play. The job, I think, we have to do is we have to break these cycles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can see someone hearing this and thinking, these men are violent. They profess violence. And we normally don't say compassion is enough when we talk about Islamist terrorists, for example. Isn't it a double standard?

MCALEER: Well, I think - and I'm remiss a little bit here. Compassion only works when it's accompanied with healthy boundaries and consequences. It has to have that component of healthy boundaries and consequences. Otherwise, it's an invitation for abuse and re-abuse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you see that there's a spike right now, though? Do you see that there are a lot more of these kinds of attacks and people that are being drawn to this ideology? And does it concern you?

MCALEER: Absolutely, because it's growing. The polarization of our society is growing - and, you know, from that polarized part on the violent far right, I think, is growing. And the attacks are becoming more frequent. And in a strange way, it's almost becoming normalized. You know, it's not normal. But it's happened with such a frequency that we don't react the same way after five or six or seven of them as we did at the first one or two. That's a concern.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tony McAleer of the group Life After Hate. Thank you so much.

MCALEER: Thank you.

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