A Former Neo-Nazi Says He's Found The Key To Stopping White Supremacy

"Everything I did I chose to do.”

Tony McAleer thinks he's figured out how to get white supremacists to leave behind a life of hate.

And if anyone would know, it's him: he spent almost 20 years as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi while a part of groups like the White Aryan Nation. Now, though, McAleer is the co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate, an organization that helps turn people away from white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. 

Tony McAleer in his youth. Tony McAleer

What he's learned through his work is that if you want to convince a white supremacist to change his beliefs, or to leave a hate group, you're never going to do it by presenting him or her with more  — or more accurate — information. McAleer says that's a common mistake.

"That makes the assumption that it was a rational decision to join in the first place, and it's not," McAleer told A Plus. "It's not the mind that gets them in there, it's the heart. And it's the disconnection from the heart that makes them vulnerable and the vulnerabilities exist. People join for a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose."

In the 1980s, McAleer went looking for that sense of purpose abroad at a Methodist boarding school. 

The trouble started when the Canadian-born middle-schooler caught his father cheating on his mother. He began to disrespect authority figures. He was beaten by teachers in school and began bouncing around to different school districts. Finally, when he was 16, his parents sent him to the school in Scarborough, England. 

McAleer told A Plus that his childhood is no excuse for the path he took, it's simply context that shows the "lens through which I made my decisions." One way to understand his decision to embrace white supremacy as a lonely teenager, McAleer said, is to imagine going into a grocery store while hungry and choosing to buy only junk food.

"I went out into the world emotionally hungry and the food doesn't or the hunger doesn't make you buy it," he said. "You have to reach, to make the decision and take agency over it, and that's sort of the same thing for me. Those things influence my childhood and maybe influenced my decisions but they didn't force me to do it. Everything I did I chose to do."

Soon enough, McAleer became enthralled with England's punk rock scene, where he forged his first friendships with skinheads. He eventually joined the White Aryan Resistance and found acceptance and purpose by participating in anti-immigrant activism and advocating for Holocaust denial. He'd get into street brawls and adopt the common white supremacist notion that Jewish politicians were responsible for immigration and the advancement of minorities' status in society. By the 1990s, his views had gotten the attention of the Canadian media, which only elevated his attachment to his identity as a white supremacist. He ran a white supremacist phone line and helped launch some of the first white supremacist websites. 

"What I got out of the movement was I got to feel powerful when I felt powerless," McAleer said. "I got to get attention, media attention and everything, when I felt invisible. And I felt significant when I felt insignificant. It's a compensation for the lack of all of those things."

Tony McAleer during an interview with A Plus.  Raina Yoo

But all that would change when McAleer had his first child. He was already having his doubts when he realized that everyone around him was constantly miserable. None of his neo-Nazi friends had relationships with their family. Alcoholism was rampant and there was nothing but anger and negativity wherever he looked. McAleer was becoming convinced that "you can't possibly have a good relationship with another human being" as a white supremacist. And then, amidst those doubts, he held his daughter for the first time.

"It was being in the delivery room and and being handed this beautiful baby girl," McAleer said. "And her eyes open for the very first time — you know — she had a scrunch-y face and I know that my face is the first picture her brain's going to take. And I connected to another human being for the first time since I couldn't remember when."

In that moment, the lifestyle McAleer was living began to unravel. 15 months later he had a son, and by parenting his son the way he wished he had been parented, he got in touch with a different side of himself. He felt unconditional love. He saw a child who wouldn't judge or reject or ridicule him, and he felt himself open up. The "slow thawing process," as he described it, allowed him to reconnect to humanity.

Before he knew it, McAleer was a "former." That's what Life After Hate calls people who have left extremist groups. As of this publication, it has helped convert more than 100 people into formers. It's not just neo-Nazis and white supremacists, either. McAleer insists that his story transcends just white supremacy; it's relevant to jihadist groups, the Irish Republican Army, the FARC in Colombia, all of which have members he's seen become formers. Those groups, too, though different in their aims, are filled with people struggling with relationships with themselves, McAleer said. In some ways, he said, blaming extremism on religious indoctrination or political beliefs is a distraction from the interpersonal distress that makes those people vulnerable in the first place.

A woman protests white supremacy in Chicago, Illinois in August, 2017. Shutterstock / Michael Moloney.

Some formers' stories stick out to McAleer more than others. He recalled one man, an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, who reached out to Life After Hate while in the midst of contemplating shooting worshippers at a mosque. After spending some time with two staff members from Life After Hate, the man went to the mosque and was introduced to the imam. By the end of the day, McAleer said, the man and the imam were praying together. 

"The hardest thing in the world to do is to have compassion for someone who has no compassion, but they're the very ones that need it the most," McAleer said. "We circle around after and deal with the ideology, but the most important piece is that reconnection to themselves internally and that path of self-compassion and self-forgiveness."

Compassion and connectivity are tough in today's world, though. As far as McAleer can tell, we've never been more connected as a species and we've also never been more disconnected. Seeing the rise of the alt-right and white nationalism in the United States, he points to the "dehumanization" of the right and left. Part of that is the era of social media where so often we connect in a shallow ways, he says. Online radicalization is also an issue Life After Hate is becoming increasingly concerned about. In the era in which McAleer was being radicalized, it took months or years for people to drawn into something like white supremacy. Now, he says, it can happen in days or weeks. 

Through all of this, though, there is one major takeaway: the importance of compassion. Compassion is what drives Life After Hate, and McAleer believes having compassion for extremists is the only way we can turn them into formers.

"We despise the ideology, we despise the activities, but we don't despise the human being," McAleer said. "We just need to help them get on the right path."

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