Photo by Katalin Karolyi

A former organiser for the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), Tony McAleer served as a skinhead recruiter, proprietor of Canadian Liberty Net (a computer operated voice messaging center used to disseminate messages of hatred), and manager of the racist rock band, Odin’s Law. It was love for his children that finally led Tony on a spiritual journey of personal transformation.

I have to go back to my childhood to understand how I became a violent extremist. Many other former white supremacists came from really rough neighbourhoods but I grew up in a middle-class doctor’s family.

The trouble was that my father was an emotional bully and so being a very sensitive child I learned from an early age to use my intellect to suppress my feelings and disconnect from my emotions. It was the only way I knew to avoid being shamed by my father and it became my survival mechanism.

I have two distinctive memories from my childhood which have left a deep impression on me. The first is from when I was about eleven and walked in on my father with another woman. It seemed to flip a switch in me and from that moment on I became disengaged and angry. The second memory is from my Catholic private school where I got bullied and where corporal punishment was the norm. The result of both these experiences meant that by the time I reached my teens I felt unlovable, insignificant and powerless.

I only gained a sense of power when I got involved with punk rock. Within the punk rock scene was the skinhead scene and it was here that I gained the most notoriety. I mistook my ability to get angry and to cause fear in others for real power. Unresolved anger always expresses itself as violence and I chose to express my violent behaviour within this huge skinhead subculture.

The problem was that as a teenager I went into the world emotionally hungry and therefore I made some really bad choices which caused hurt to a lot of people. The acts of violence that I committed against people who had done nothing wrong were horrific.

There is one event I’m still haunted and shamed by. There was this young gay guy who we chased until he ran into a construction site and hid behind a porch.  We couldn’t get to him so instead we hurled stones in his direction. Although we couldn’t see him we could hear his cries every time a stone hit its mark. I should have felt sorry for him – after all I’d suffered enough bullying myself – but by now I was so disconnected from my own feelings I couldn’t feel compassion.

Eventually I got involved in some of the most radical far-right groups in the United States such as Aryan Nations and White Aryan Resistance. I used to participate in paramilitary training and I owned numerous assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Robert Matthews, the leader of The Order (an American white nationalist militant group) was my hero and my plan was to prepare for the inevitable race war. I believed I would either be dead or in jail by the age of 30 and I was OK about that.

I became an accomplished propagandist and at the height of my arrogance my head was so far up my ego that I was on national television harming millions of people at a time with my words and ideology.

What turned it around was becoming a father. As I was holding my beautiful, new-born baby daughter her eyes opened and for the first time since my own childhood I felt connected to another human being. I felt deeply moved by this experience but even so change didn’t happen overnight.

What ultimately changed me was becoming a single parent and raising two children on my own. A child is not capable of rejecting you and so now I felt safe to open my heart and learn to love again.

In that process I learned that to hold the ideology of separation, or racism, you have to have a closed heart. An open heart makes the ideology irrelevant.

My hope now is to inspire people to a place of compassion and forgiveness. When we have compassion for everybody else but not ourselves; that’s about ego. But if we have compassion for only ourselves, and no one else; that’s narcissism. The more I can have compassion and forgiveness for myself the less likely I am to harm others. Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook, it’s about releasing yourself from that angry energy. But it has to come with healthy boundaries and understanding consequences. If you forgive violent behaviour and put up with it that’s not forgiveness – at that point you need to walk out of the door.

Today he is the executive director of Life After Hate and shares his practice of compassion as an inspirational speaker.