By Harrison Heller
Hate groups have always existed, but in the current environment they have emerged from the shadows. Some new actors have jumped from the digital world to the physical world to start collaborating with older hate groups.
According to a MilitaryTimes poll in October 2017, one in four troops witnessed examples of white nationalism among their fellow troops. The poll also found that 42 percent of non-white active duty troops reported personally experiencing white nationalism within the military.
In September, Parents for Peace, a group that fights all forms of extremism, organized a discussion in Washington, D.C. The audience heard from three panelists, including Christopher Buckley, an Afghanistan veteran who joined the Ku Klux Klan.
Buckley had a seemingly normal upbringing with his family in Cleveland, Ohio, but can now see the first sign of where his hatred originated. His parents were never racist in public, but at home they would occasionally include racial slurs in their conversations. When he was seven-years-old, his cousin started dating a black man. His parents told him not to speak with his cousin. “Interracial relationships should not exist because mixed kids have no place in this world because they do not know where they belong,” Buckley said they told him.
At school Buckley had few friends and said his peers often bullied him, leaving him feeling broken and alone. When he told his parents about his best friend at the time who was of Lebanese descent they said, “That is the problem with this country.”
After September 11, 2001, military recruiters went to Buckley’s high school and he decided to enlist in order to get revenge for those attacks.
During basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Buckley felt the military used sophisticated methods in order to dehumanize other people. He said commanding officers frequently used ethnic slurs to describe the people he would be fighting against in Arab countries. He considered it similar to using racial slurs during other U.S. conflicts when describing the Germans, Japanese, and Vietnamese. At the rifle range, paper targets that started out as silhouettes of a person were replaced by images of Muslim men. In close quarters combat training, the actors were in full Muslim dress. Buckley said this is when his hatred of Muslims started to grow.
In Afghanistan, Buckley saw Islam through a very controlled and unfavorable lens. On base he heard ethnic slurs and disparaging remarks about Muslims. At night, some troops burned copies of the Quran and urinated on them. When he had time to venture out into the community, he felt on edge and acted aggressively toward the local people. He viewed everyone as a potential threat. The troops who did not feel anger and resentment towards Muslims would call out their fellow soldiers for this negative behavior.
The lens through which Buckley viewed Muslims and Islam grew even narrower after the death of a colleague, who happened to be a close friend. Buckley stopped for a smoke break with a fellow soldier while they were on patrol. Shots were fired, and the other soldier died. Buckley blamed Islam for his friend’s death and says the little flame of hate turned into a raging inferno. “All the negative experiences I had with Islam happened in the military,” Buckley said.
The military offered Buckley counseling services when he returned to the U.S. in March of 2009. The services were difficult to access so Buckley did not take advantage of them. Buckley joined the National Guard in Kentucky, but in May of 2009, a training accident led to his honorable discharge.
When one of his black friends started dating his sister-in-law, he began searching online for ways to protect the white race. One of those searches led Buckley to the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (LWK).
The Anti-Defamation League considers LWK one of the largest and most active Klan groups in the United States. The LWK practices traditional Klan ideology blended with neo-Nazi beliefs. At their cross-lighting ceremonies, they also light a swastika.
The KKK inducted Buckley in June of 2014, and he ultimately reached the rank of Imperial Nighthawk, in which he provided security for the Grand Wizard of the LWK.
Eventually, Buckley started to realize the KKK was something he no longer wanted to be involved with. His substance abuse had validated his anti-Muslim and racist beliefs, but when sober, he did not want to be part of the group.
Buckley’s wife Melissa contacted Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead, to get some help. Michaelis said that Buckley was in rough shape when they first met, and it took months before he could get him to leave the KKK in 2016. Buckley is currently working on a 12 step program that helps those escaping hate groups.
Many former white supremacists volunteer their time to help others leave these types of groups. However, Michaelis says it’s difficult when these hate groups target newly discharged veterans. He said the groups use the veterans’ military training to encourage them to protect America.
During our conversation, Buckley compared Muslim extremists to those involved with the white supremacy movement. “They are small groups of people, very poor, who are overlooked and angry about their environment and living conditions. This kind of correlates to rural America. Look at where white supremacy is bred.” He added, “We are the world’s finest fighting force…but at what cost? We are not only dehumanizing our enemy, but also dehumanizing our soldier.”
Parents for Peace operates a confidential hotline that assists families and those who have been radicalized. If you know anyone who might have been radicalized, or a family that has been impacted, please contact the hotline at 1-844-49-PEACE. Parents for Peace is also trying to collaborate with veteran service organizations to bring awareness to the issue of veteran radicalization and how to combat it.
Volume 73. Number 4. 2019