With last week’s heinous terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the menace of white supremacy has once again reared its ugly head. The terrorist, who ought to be rendered nameless, gunned down 50 worshipers in cold blood at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre on the basis of racial and religious hatred. The attack in Christchurch represents the surging threat of white supremacy and other hate-filled movements worldwide, including here in the United States.

However, the conversation around this tragedy has been hijacked by politicians seeking to use this grave threat to score cheap political points on their opponents. For example, some have even tried to blame President Donald Trump for the horrific attack in Christchurch, despite his condemnation of the attack. The end result of this shallow discourse is more division within our society while hatred continues to grow unencumbered. In the wake of this frightening threat, we must instead unite to combat hate with strengthened communities.

Fortunately, we the American people have far more power to purge our society of hate than our elected representatives do. Our founding fathers envisioned a nation of minutemen, with patriotic Americans taking action to better our society. Lately, however, our civic engagement hasn’t lived up to the legacy of our exceptional nation. By becoming more engaged in our individual communities, we have the capacity to rejuvenate American civic life from the ground-up. In doing so, we will ensure that no one continues to be left to fall through the cracks and turn towards hate.

To defeat the rising threat of white supremacy, we must reject the divisive rhetoric of our leaders and return to our tradition stretching back from the Revolutionary War to World War II of banding together to effect change from the grassroots level. A more cohesive society and vibrant civic life will allow for the light of joining together for a common purpose to drown out the darkness of hateful movements.

The increasing digitalization of our society has allowed us to connect with friends and family across the world while, paradoxically, making it that much more difficult to connect with those closest to us. For example, a 2016 study involving more than 1,700 people found an increase in risk of depression and anxiety among people who used a large number of social media platforms. In addition to that, another 2014 study found people who browsed Facebook for 20 minutes reported a more negative mood than those who had just browsed the internet. While there’s also plenty of evidence to show social media as a positive force, it’s clear there are strong negative behavioral effects as well.

With the combination of social media’s negative effects with a meltdown of the social fabric in areas left behind by economic globalization, we see a growing population disgruntled and without a community to which they can turn. Proponents of all kinds of hate — from white supremacy to radical Islamic extremism — have taken advantage of this situation to bring in new recruits, who are typically disaffected young men. As savvy online operators, peddlers of hate radicalize their socially isolated prey remotely through the internet. Unlike more traditional national security threats, digital radicalization is especially dangerous because it has no discernible face and can enter millions of American homes undetected.

Twisted souls finally find the meaning and belonging they are craving in hate groups. Explaining this phenomenon, Jessica Stern, a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said in an interview to CNN Business last week, “They’re picking up an ideology that helps them justify their rage, their disappointment, and it’s something available.” As Stern illustrated, the proliferation of white supremacy and other forms of hate is rooted in the lack of a greater sense of common purpose among a portion of the population. In joining a hate group, these predators finally receive the attention they are craving, even if it is negative.

The lack of belonging felt by white supremacists in mainstream societies breeds envy toward communities that embody the common meaning and purpose they never had. Tragically, this envy engenders the reprehensible acts of hate dominating our headlines all too often as of late. While we’re still learning more about what motivated the Christchurch terrorist, it’s clear the rottenness of envy afflicted him deeply. He even admitted in his 74-page manifesto of hatred that he wasn’t originally planning to attack New Zealand, but later chose to do so because of its status as a beacon for peaceful multiculturalism. The terrorist went on to state that his ultimate goal was to ignite an American race war, shattering the thriving sense of community of which he is so envious. 

Instead of acquiescing to terror, we must double down on our efforts to build a more cohesive society. Pillars of our society, such as houses of worship and recreational sports leagues, serve as a bulwark against hate. They provide a forceful alternative to the movements of hate currently reaching so many of our disaffected and socially isolated neighbors. By continuing to build up our cornerstones of community, we will provide those so removed from society with a way out from the lure of turning to hate. In fact, analysis of our current at-risk programs shows that youth all across America are becoming more productive members of society because of these programs. In lieu of finding belonging in a movement of hate, they can find belonging by connecting with others. Working together for something positive will, ultimately, prove far more powerful than the movements of hate currently ravaging our society. We must first, however, rededicate ourselves to working together to build up the infrastructure that allows cornerstones of community to reach out to at-risk youth.

We are losing the struggle against hate because some in our society are all too quick to give the terrorists what they want — further needless division. If we’re going to stop the frightening trend of white supremacy on the march, we must stand united against hatred. However, our political class appears unable to do so. Much of the political discourse following the Christchurch attack has been centered on petty bickering instead of crafting a meaningful way to confront the threat of hate.

In order to turn back the growing threat of white supremacy, we must reject the divisive rhetoric of our leaders and unify the country from the ground up. Irrespective of our leaders’ behavior, this is not a problem that can be solved by the government. The very aspects of community so loathed by white supremacists are those we will have to rely on to stamp out this looming threat. While our commitment to peace and belonging makes us a target, we can’t allow terrorism to rob us of the civic heritage that makes our nation so great. Already, our Department of Homeland Security is working with local communities to implement early intervention programs to prevent radicalization. We must reinvigorate this commitment to reaching out to our fellow Americans through churches, temples and mosques as well as other elements of local civic life. This effort is more important than ever, as digitalization and globalization have left a great portion of our nation without a support system to turn to. In unifying the country around renewed civic engagement, we will ensure that hate no longer has a base within legions of disaffected Americans.

Dylan Berger can be reached at dylberge@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *