According to the US Department of Homeland Security, White supremacy is the biggest security threat facing the United States today based on the number of violent crimes committed. It eclipses all other types of extremism.
Among these groups are active US military personnel and veterans.
I would know — because that was me. After serving in Afghanistan, I officially joined the White Knights of the KKK in 2014. The skills that I learned in the military, like a heightened level of mental and tactical awareness, are exactly what groups like this valued for the purpose of training new members. I was a prime target to be groomed and recruited.
Hate and anger were things that I had dealt with since childhood.
As a young man, I was a survivor of molestation. I became extremely homophobic because of this. My racism developed after I started taking the bus to a school with other races. As one of the few White kids in that school, I suffered a lot of racial bullying. The more confrontations and bullying I experienced, the more confident I became in my beliefs.
Because I was so vulnerable as a child and had not dealt with those early traumas, I was searching for a way to feel strong and dominant as an adult. In some ways. Being in the military allowed me to bury, not resolve, my childhood traumas, but it also created new traumas when I lost comrades.
During my service in Afghanistan, my best friend was killed in an unexpected attack on a routine drill. He died in my arms, and I blamed Muslims for his death. We were trained to see them as the enemy. I came home with a hatred for Islam as well as an addiction to the painkillers I was prescribed after a back injury. I had been trained in the military to serve with duty and loyalty. I would have done anything to show my loyalty to the White Knights of the KKK. It gave me a sense of purpose that I was missing after I came home.
White supremacy, in many ways, filled a void in my life.
But my life in the KKK was a miserable cycle of perpetuated violence and hate, fueled by drugs and enhanced by the media’s rhetoric against us. If you look for hate, you will find it. It was exhausting, and there was nothing positive about my experience when I look back. It was not good or exciting. I was on a constant high on supremacy, hatred and free narcotics. In the group, there was always someone there who had drugs. You could pretty much pick your poison and someone there gave you what you wanted.
In early 2015, while shopping in a supermarket with our toddler, my wife was threatened by a group of women because they knew that her husband was in the KKK. At that moment, she knew that if she didn’t do something, our family would be harmed.
A few weeks after this incident, my wife decided to find help and Googled “how to get your husband out of a hate group.” She found Arno Michaelis, a former Neo-Nazi, online and emailed him for help.
Arno was once the lead singer of the White power rock band, “Centurion,” and is now an accomplished anti-hate activist who also works with Parents For Peace.
My wife didn’t think she would hear back, but Arno responded and flew down to meet me and take on the intervention. At first, I was extremely resistant and angry. But he was patient with me and helped me get sober and find my way back to who I was before the hate consumed me. This process took a few years.
Arno not only helped me address my trauma and pain but he also introduced me to Dr. Heval Kelli, a Kurdish Muslim refugee who is now a cardiologist, in 2018. Arno met Dr. Kelli at an event in Georgia. Dr. Kelli had done a lot of community outreach work to build bridges between Muslims and the rest of his community.
Because of the love and compassion they showed me, I was able to move forward in my life and give back. Now I help people disengage from hate groups, return to their families, and live healthy and happy lives.
Many people have asked, how can the problem of hate be solved? That is a very tough question to answer.
I believe the cure for hate is education and healing from one’s own issues and trauma. Many extremists who I have encountered suffer from similar emotional and physical issues that I dealt with.
Through my own intervention and in helping others, I have found that treating those issues requires getting help, in part, from someone who has lived the same experiences. Treatment often begins with recognizing and isolating the root of hatred.
As a former White supremacist and drug addict, I started to wonder if it was possible to be addicted to hate the way I was addicted to drugs as a coping tool. Based on this, I have spent the last two years developing two programs aimed at addressing the root causes of hate with Parents For Peace, which takes a public health approach to preventing radicalization, extremism, and violence.
I believe the most common causes of hate can be broken down into three categories: mental health, substance abuse and early trauma or grievances — all of which applied to me. While I think that the government is interested in finding a cure to this problem, through actions like awarding grants to agencies that try to counter extremism, the government needs help from an appropriate team of advisers to address the issue of prevention effectively.
Many people who are in this situation are not comfortable calling government-funded organizations. So, on many occasions, the people who need it the most aren’t being helped.
Additionally, the government often cannot act if a crime hasn’t been committed. That is why Parents For Peace’s work is so important. The organization focuses on prevention and intervention to keep people from becoming extremists or committing extremist acts. Our work is challenging, and the outcomes are positive but silent.
Treating the causes of hate requires youth resilience, community-based counternarratives and education and deradicalization programs. To be effective, the programs should be available to schools, first responders and community leaders.
That’s what I’m aiming to do with Hate Anonymous and Trauma Anonymous (TraumAnon), two programs that I’m developing. Both are programs developed to identify, isolate, address and heal the traumas people experience in their lives. I treat addiction to hate the same way I treated my addiction to substances. At Parents For Peace, we call hate “the drug of choice.”
Through Hate Anonymous and TraumAnon, we offer a 12-week course in which certified professionals provide mental health services. We work with participants and family members to get to the root cause of hate and extremism.
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While these programs are currently in the pilot phase, they are based on cases that Parents For Peace deals with every day. For example, in 2017, Parents For Peace helped a mother who called the helpline about her son who was involved with White supremacy, lashed out at people who were different than him and planned to participate in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. The son was drinking heavily and had access to a significant number of guns. Parents For Peace worked with the mother to create a plan that put her son on the road to recovery.
If we think of hate as a public health crisis and a disease, we should treat it as such. It is the only way to effectively combat the rise of extremism.