CINCINNATI — Note: Lucy May is a participant in Leaders in Light, a year-long leadership development program designed to address extremism and strengthen inclusive democracy.
CINCINNATI – As a Holocaust survivor, Arie Kruglanski experienced the hate and hurt that comes from violent extremism. As a former white supremacist, Shannon Foley Martinez inflicted violence without concern for those who suffered.
On Thursday they sat side by side to discuss what it will take to address violent extremism across the nation for a program called “Hate at Home: Understanding the Rise of Violent Extremism in the U.S.”
“There’s a real wave of extremism that’s sweeping the world,” said Kruglanski, a distinguished professor of psychology and scholar at the University of Maryland who studies violent extremism. “And in part social science tells us this is produced by the stress, the strains that societies around the world have been experiencing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded that stress, he said, building upon the extremism that was growing even before 2020.
“We are at a very dangerous juncture in history,” Kruglanski said. “Because as the Holocaust teaches us, things can get out of control, and great devastation and mayhem can happen.”
Kruglanski began studying violent extremism after the terror attacks of 9/11 and has studied the phenomenon all over the world. Based on his team’s extensive research, he said he has identified three pillars of radicalization: need, narrative and network.
Need refers to the need for dignity and respect, he said, which can be ignited by trauma or humiliation or the glory of fighting for an extremist group. Narrative refers to the story that people tell themselves, he said, about why what they do matters and is important. And network refers to community, something he said all people require.
Kruglanski said radicalization happens when the narrative becomes the importance of fighting an enemy of some sort, and the person’s network reinforces the idea that the enemy consists of people from a different religious, race or ethnicity.
“When they come together,” he said, “it creates a kind of toxic potion, explosive mixture.”
‘I felt completely worthless’
That’s how Foley Martinez became radicalized, she said, after she was the victim of a sexual assault when she was just 14 years old.
At that age, Foley Martinez already felt like an outsider in her own family, she said, a family she later realized had problems she struggled to understand as a child.
After two men sexually assaulted her at a party where she wasn’t supposed to be, Foley Martinez said she didn’t feel like she could talk to her parents.
“As a 14-year-old girl, I was like, they’re gonna be more angry with me that I had lied about where I was going to go to this party and that I had been drinking,” she said, “than they will be upset that I had just been sexually assaulted.”
So Foley Martinez kept the trauma to herself and got angrier and angrier.
“I felt completely worthless,” she said. “The main way that was being expressed in my life was through just rage. … I just wanted to hurt myself, which I did, and then everyone and everything I came in contact with.”
Foley Martinez soon got involved with neo-Nazi, white power skinheads she saw at punk rock concerts she attended – people who seemed only to want to fight and destroy. That rage resonated with her, she said, and she ended up spending four and a half years traveling with different groups of violent white supremacists.
The role of human suffering
Foley Martinez left that world when her boyfriend – a neo-Nazi who was in the Army – moved onto a military base, and she had nowhere to stay. Her boyfriend’s mother – who was unaware of her son’s white supremacist beliefs -- offered to let Foley Martinez stay with her and her younger children.
“My life had been so hyper violent and focused on the engagement of hate and violence,” she said. “I forgot people have fun and laugh with joy.”
Foley Martinez began experiencing the world differently and felt connected to her boyfriend’s mother, who encouraged her to take college entrance exams and continue her education. She suddenly had someone who valued her as a person, she said, and she realized she wanted a different life.
When Foley Martinez had her first child at age 23, she said she decided she wanted to raise him differently to ensure he never took the same path she did. That son is now 24, and Foley Martinez continues to help people who are leaving extremist groups by mentoring them.
Those one-on-one relationships are critical, she said.
“To me, the antidote to hate is not love,” she said. “It’s connection.”
“There are probably people even in our own families who have beliefs that we find abhorrent. They may even be engaged in terrible actions and activities,” she said after the program. “Maintaining that out-of-echo chamber connection is the only thing that will allow them a pathway out if they ever get to the point where they want to leave.”
And while people work to keep those personal connections, Kruglanski said communities and nations must work to make life better for everyone.
“The simple answer is to create a better, more just, more fair society because much of it is caused by human suffering that is not psychological,” he said. “It’s not in somebody’s mind. It’s in reality. People have lost their dignity.”
Thursday’s program was presented by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center in partnership with the Cincinnati Regional Coalition Against Hate and Leaders in Light, a year-long leadership development program that aims to address extremism and strengthen inclusive democracy.