Frankie Meeink spent five years in a racist skinhead gang in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years ago on April 19, 1995, he was watching the fallout on live TV of the single-deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
“I believed I was fighting a holy war. I was raining down God’s justice on an evil world,” Frankie later wrote in his autobiography.
“Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols believed that, too. That belief killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. Nineteen of them were innocent little kids, like my baby girl. I couldn’t shake that. I couldn’t bear that.”
A thousand miles away in Florida, the bombing was the first real shake-up for Angela King, too. Angela was a committed neo-Nazi when news of the attacks broke. “When I realized it was someone like me who had committed that violence, it was the first time that made me reconsider,” she would later say.
Both would go on to launch Life After Hate with four other former violent extremists in 2011. Today, we help individuals leave violent far-right hate groups.
What we’ve learned is that how Frankie and Angela responded to the Oklahoma City bombing is more common than we first realized. And it’s helping us in our fight against the violent far-right.
We know that hateful ideology is not a prerequisite for joining a hate group. There are many other factors, including alienation, trauma, shame, and abuse.
Many extremists act as if they are committed to “the cause,” but their conviction is unsteady. While so-called “lone actors” remain capable of carrying out devastating acts of terrorism, many other far-right extremists become disillusioned long before.
For them, the specter of violence, especially against children, is the line they are unwilling to cross. And it often prompts the moment of reflection that precedes disengagement.
Today, we see this correlation in the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Charlottesville.
We do not mean to suggest that it takes violence to help draw people away from hate groups. But we believe — and research supports us — that at least part of the reaction to these tragic incidents gives us insight into how to develop effective intervention programs.
What prompted Frankie and Angela to deeply reconsider their involvement was not fear of arrest, or injury to themselves. It was not a counter-argument to their racist worldview. It was an unexpected encounter with restorative humanity that led them on the course of redemption.
That is a fundamental part of our mission — helping people leave the violent far-right to connect with humanity and lead compassionate lives. Ultimately, our work is about reconnecting formers with their own humanity, and exposing them to as many examples of humanity as possible.
It’s a critical strategy to the overall health of the nation. If it was possible to reach Angela and Frankie, it’s possible for any one else, too.