Hate Land: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart
By Daryl Johnson
Prometheus Books, 2019
Daryl Johnson begins his utterly arresting new book Hate Land: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart with quick looks at three recent monsters from the news headlines: Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in South Carolina in 2015, Muhammad Abdulazeez, who killed five people in Tennessee in the same year, and Micah Johnson, who killed five people in Dallas in 2016. Readers of the popular press know these and many, many other young men as avatars of the latest American social nightmare: the “lone wolf” mass murderer who becomes radicalized by long, bore-eyed deep-dives on the Internet, easily assembles or accesses an arsenal, and then makes headlines by slaughtering strangers, usually culminating in taking their own life.
As horrifying as such figures are, there’s a slim element of comfort involved in this familiar origin story: by stressing isolation, it reassures the rest of us that we’re a comfortable distance from anything like that kind of radicalization. In Hate Land, Johnson, formerly a senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, systematically removes this kind of comfort. On every page, he illuminates how thin the dividing-line is between these monsters and the people who work and play next to them every day:
Despite their relatively mainstream, middle class existence, Micah Johnson, Muhammad Abdulazeer and Dylann Roof were closer to extremism than most people suspected. This was not, however, because of some previously unknown revelation about their lives, but simply because everybody is. The idea that there is a firm barrier between any one person and an alternate, extremist version of them is a misconception. There is no us and them.
Johnson describes a triangle of forces: the “safety net” of grounding inhibitors most people experience to one extent or another, grounding inhibitors like “careers, faith, family ties, education and social networks” that keep people connected to the world around them; “destabilizers” such as “ignorance, bias, stubbornness, rebellion, alienation, grievance and isolation” that can work to undermine that safety net; and the key catalyst: exposure to external radicalizing forces.
In the 21st century, the safety nets are weaker, the destabilizers are stronger and far more numerous, and worst of all, the external radicalizing force is literally everywhere. It isn’t necessary for undermined young men to find and attend meetings of like-minded loners or dig around in low-light bookstores for forbidden texts; they can instead easily access the Internet and become unmoored from their support net by precincts of social media that Johnson calls a “one-stop shop for radicalization” - and the shopping extends to much more than information: “The internet doesn’t just lower barriers to making a website or uploading a video or selling your knitwear,” Johnson writes, “it reduces logistical challenges of everything, including accessing terrorist tradecraft.”
In some of his book’s most intriguing (albeit alarming) passages, Johnson extends his analysis from the Internet all the way to the White House. He very convincingly argues that not only is every American capable of radicalization, but the national politics those Americans imbibe every day are now entirely structured to further that process. “The crumbling faith in mainstream America and the metrics showing of broad divisiveness and fear have a role to play in the spread of extremism,” Johnson writes, and some of the same extremist factors that delivered the presidency to Donald Trump - “intractable political polarization, debilitated institutions, and extremely divisive media coverage” - are, Johnson writes, widely cited by historians as “typical pre-conditions for civil war.”
The only slim sliver of hope in Hate Land’s pages is the chance that Johnson is either in error about some of this or a bit of an alarmist. The underlying pressures and causes he outlines certainly aren’t going anywhere, and if this stark, important book is correct, those pressures are only going to worsen and those causes multiply. A wide American readership for this book and books like it might be the beginning of a countermeasure.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.