Originally published in the 23rd issue of Life After Hate, an online magazine dedicated to the theme of basic human goodness – the truth that all human beings share an innate need for compassion and the ability to give it.
“I know about hate and violence.”
Paul said this after overhearing a conversation about my book. My Life After Hate is a reflective memoir-ish kind of thing about how I came to spend seven years as a white power skinhead and how I thankfully came to my senses.
This past summer I travelled directly to a Shambhala Mountain Center Sangha retreat in Colorado, US from the Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin, Ireland. I brought 50 copies of My Life After Hate to Dublin, then proceeded to give them away to some of the most amazing peace activists on Earth. Only 3 copies remained by the time I got to the Rockies. One of those was set aside for Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala Lineage, the other promised to my new friend Eric. Then I met Paul.
A week earlier I had felt a kinship with former perpetrators of hate and violence from around the world. Just about every possible faction of violent extremism was represented: former white supremacists, like myself, former IRA, former gang-bangers, former Jihadists, former Zionists, former violent radicals from the far left and the far right — all gathered together to learn from each other and from survivors of the very violence they used to engage in. The moment we met, it was as if we had known each other all of our lives. The arduous journey of making such catastrophic mistakes then publicly owning them in the process of restorative justice and peace education creates a unique camaraderie that I am very fortunate to have experienced. A fellowship certainly akin to the one shared by soldiers, especially those who fought to retain their humanity amidst the horrific dehumanization of war.
As Paul and I shared thoughts about our respective books, that trauma-forged kinship was apparent. At first glance the trauma endured by a National Guardsman in Iraq and that of a bored, angry teenager who made a conscious decision to forego his own humanity in favor of the sick ideology of racism would seem to lack a common thread. But after talking to Paul, and reading his award-winning book, Walking the Tiger’s Path, similarities became apparent.
In My Life After Hate, I examine the circumstances and poor decisions that led me to become a founding member in what is today the largest racist skinhead organization on Earth. Caught up in the mythology of white supremacy, I came to believe wholeheartedly that white people were not only superior to everyone else, but also facing genocide at the hands of an ominous Jewish conspiracy. While based in irrational hatred, my intention of “saving the white race” was cast as a gesture of love and concern. Once the ridiculous assumption of said ominous Jewish conspiracy was bought into, there seemed to be no alternative than to fight such perceived evil with everything I had.
Paul found himself in Iraq under very similar ideological conditions. According to the political justification for the war, “we” (the United States of America), had to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Is the “War on Terror” as ridiculous an assumption as a Jewish conspiracy to wipe the white race off the face of the Earth? Perhaps it is not. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are very concrete threats. It’s all well and good to hold hands and sing Kumbayah, but when buildings are being blown up and thousands of innocent people perish, a more drastic response seems obligatory.
Yet the knee-jerk orgy of violence that has raged for the past 11 years requires the same mindless buy-in that white power ideology does: get them before they get us. Both are based on arbitrary generalizations constructed specifically to deny the truth of our common human family. While politicians behind the policy of war will vehemently protest such assessment of The War On Terror, the soldiers who have to do the actual fighting can attest to its validity.
Paul treated Iraqis with compassion at risk to his life and reputation among fellow soldiers. The military culture encouraged the deadly and disgusting notion that all Arabic people were enemies until proven otherwise — fair game for shooting first and asking questions later. Not asking questions at all, actually. The culture of war refuses question entirely, whether it be a Racial Holy War, the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.
During a routine patrol through a crowded village, SGT. Paul Kendel was ordered to open fire on a car for not pulling entirely off the road as the military vehicles passed. Paul found the strength and personal responsibility to question that order. He could have obliterated the car and the children playing alongside it, citing the 9/11 attacks, or the attacks that routinely kill his fellow soldiers as justification. For all they knew, the car in question could have been an Improvised Explosive Device itself. The insurgency wouldn’t flinch over taking out a child if they could take out a single US Soldier in the process, so matching the ruthlessness of an unseen and omnipresent enemy seemed the only alternative. Paul’s commanding officers weren’t born sociopaths, but they were taking what appeared to be the appropriate course of action, considering the rigid ideology of aggression they bought into.
So were the insurgents the sociopaths? Paul’s fellow soldiers were expected not to ask, but to answer only with aggression. By exercising compassion, SGT Kendel was able to see the situation free from the haze of interference that clouded the hearts of his comrades. This clarity empowered him to starve the insurgency of another suicide bomber, many of whom were parents whose beautiful, innocent child was killed by a foreign solider.
Paul engaged with his genuine heart to understand that the insurgency stemmed from a cycle of violence. All of the human beings caught up in it — him, his platoon, and their children and parents as much as the insurgents and their children and parents — really only wanted to give and receive compassion. He learned firsthand the miserable impossibility of violence somehow producing peace, then demonstrated to himself and all life around him the profound power of kindness and respect.
Reaching out to Shambhala Buddhist Community for help in coping with the horrors of the Iraq war, Paul connected with Margot Neuman of the Ratna Peace Initiative, the Shambhala effort to bring peace to incarcerated people via meditation, and with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Walking the Tiger’s Path chronicles Paul’s arduous navigation through an incredibly hostile environment where hate and violence churned to produce a truly hellish status quo. Reflections artfully merged with in-the-moment scenes and the correspondence with Margot and The Sakyong ultimately produce a beautiful testimony to the unique human need for compassion and the ability to give it.
I am very grateful for all of the amazing human beings in my life, including everyone who reads Life After Hate, and Elephant Journal, and for this means of bringing us all together.
Arno Michaels was deeply involved in the white power movement of the late 80s and early 90s. He was a founding member of what went on to become the largest racist skinhead organization on Earth, and lead singer of the hate metal band Centurion, which sold 20,000 CDs by the mid-nineties and is still popular with racists today. Single parenthood, love for his daughter, and the forgiveness shown by people he once hated all helped to turn Arno’s life around, bringing him to embrace diversity and speak out against hate and violence. Today Arno publishes and writes for the peace education organization and online magazine Life After Hate, and is author of the memoir-ish My Life After Hate. He is also a founder of the character education outreach movement Kindness Not Weakness, that teaches the strength, courage, and honor necessary to wage peace. In Summer of 2011, Life After Hate joined the Against Violent Extremism network, a global alliance of former perpetrators of violent extremism along with survivors thereof working together to promote peace.