It seems very rational to attack those on the extreme right, and all terrorist groups, like the group of neo-Nazis who caused so many problems in Charlottesville in the US just one year ago. When there are people whose ideas are so counter to our liberal, progressive values, it only seems right that we can attack them for their hideous ideology.
However, this will not stop those on the far right — as it isn’t really a political movement. If it were, then constant derision of their values would be an effective defence to stop them in their tracks, as this reduces their popularity and restricts them to the fringes of politics.
What is crucial to understand about white supremacists and neo-Nazis, however, is that most of them just want to belong. They are often those with the most deeply troubled pasts and childhoods, and they are usually recruited at their most vulnerable points.
Indeed, many are in need of help for mental health issues, such as PTSD, unresolved traumas, and depression. If we only attack and marginalise those who are part of the far-right, especially the youth, then we risk aggravating the underlying issues that many have.
Many don’t actually really believe what they say, and rather propagate the hate-loaded messages to feel as though they really belong with their group. There is also reason to believe that marginalising those within these movements and attacking their personality makes their longing to belong much stronger and more intense — and they are likely to become more involved in their movement.
Indeed, if those within the far-right sphere feel so rejected by society that they become suicidal, they may well commit acts of extreme violence and martyr themselves.
In addition, there is little point in attacking white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the majority of countries (excluding the US), due to the incredibly low level of threat they pose. As long as the public is still aware of the dangers of racist ideologies, it doesn’t need to be repeated over and over again.
As such, government policy regarding terrorist organisations on the far right needs to become more careful and nuanced. For example, the government of the UK introduced the strategy CONTEST in 2003 — later widened in 2011 and 2018. This included the 4 strands — the major one being Prevent, which aims to stop people joining terrorist organisations, including white nationalists, by spotting potential issues before they sprout into terrorism.
These issues are what Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist (now a campaigner for better policy on neo-Nazism), calls ‘potholes’. In both a TED talk and his MSNBC documentary ‘Breaking Hate’, he describes how to stop neo-Nazism and how to deal with vulnerable people to stop them from joining the movement.
At the end of the TED talk he says:
Hatred is borne of ignorance; Fear is its father and Isolation is its mother.
He goes on to describe how helping people to become better people and aiding them with recovery from mental traumas can stop people within terrorist organisations from going on to commit atrocities. He says, quite rightly, that it is compassion that stops terrorism, rather than argument or attack.
So, there is a balance to be struck. It is one of maintaining public knowledge of the problems associated with racism while aiming for a more nuanced, careful, and compassionate policy on counter-terrorism — for both jihadist and other religious groups as well as far-right white supremacists.
While politicians fail to understand this in the US, the rest of the world leaves it behind — and the situation grows ever more severe.