Becoming a Racist: The Unfortunate Side Effect of Being American?

Molly Pearl, Service Together Program Manager

Molly Pearl, Service Together Program Manager

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, David Fagin published an opinion piece titled Becoming a Racist: The Unfortunate Side Effect of Serving Your Country? about a group of veterans that served as armed guards for Nazi protesters. Noting that this group of veterans claim their deployment experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan radicalized them towards racism and hate, Fagin quickly draws a link to the epidemic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a lack of support services on the part of our military and government, for spawning this ugly display. While I harbor no sympathy for Nazis, regardless of their service to our country, I do take issue with the conflation of military service and radical, alt-right ideology. Fagin points towards the most obvious elephant in the room, and in doing so absolves Americans of their responsibility to look inward and ask how we have arrived at this point in our society.

As a licensed social worker, and the spouse and caregiver of a veteran with PTSD, I must first address a dangerous misunderstanding woven throughout Fagin’s piece. Roughly 7% of the general population (16 million people) will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Between 11-20% of Post 9/11 Veterans (about 500,000 individuals) will receive a PTSD diagnosis in their lifetime, a lower rate than that of their Vietnam Era peers. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is classified as trauma and stressor related disorder in the DSM-5. It is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks, and yes-- sometimes aggression and destructive behavior, though it is important to note that those behaviors can be focused internally or externally. Individuals often experience depression and anxiety in conjunction with PTSD; they become isolated, withdrawn, have difficulty sleeping or concentrating on daily tasks, and adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms. Far from political radicalization, the most common “side effects” of PTSD include underemployment or unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide. Loosely correlating a mental health diagnosis with Nazism is at best irresponsible, and at worst perpetuates ableism and the stigma associated with mental health diagnoses.

As a white, Jewish woman I have to stand up and take responsibility for my part in the historical, and continued rise of white supremacy in American society. It is white supremacy, and the silence of well-intentioned Americans, that allows Nazis carrying torches to march openly in the streets of Charlottesville, emboldened to commit acts of terrorism like driving a car into a group of peaceful protestors. Focusing on a group of veterans risks failing to see the forest for the trees. David Fagin was rightfully horrified at the sight of veterans, fully armed, providing security for Nazis. We all should be. But we also cheered when veterans arrived in Standing Rock, and it bears mentioning that organizations like Common Defense, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, and Veterans for American Ideals continue to mobilize veterans against racism and hate.

The problem is that veterans are not treated as individuals but signifiers in the public mind; they will always smell of blood and violence, reek of dysfunction and glutted budgets. In the image of the veteran we see our own failures and faults. What we conveniently gloss over is the fact that the citizens of the United States elect the Commander in Chief. We elect the Congress that continues to wage splintered wars under a sixteen year old authorization for use of military force. We would do well to remember that we live in a culture of violence, waging war at home and abroad. Most civilians beg exhaustion and look away as we feed our young to the forever war. Back home, we allow our police departments to purchase military equipment for use against their own communities, further deepening the pockets of defense contractors. Should we expect any less from a country founded upon the genocide of indigenous peoples, or the torture and enslavement of black bodies? Perhaps we should ask where the violence we see in our veterans, nay, the alt-right, was planted, cultivated, and harvested. 

We are the problem; David Fagin, and me, and you, dear reader. What are we doing to challenge the history of violence, racism, and hatred that we inherited? What are we doing to stop the forever war? Are we quibbling over easy targets, seeing who can yell Not I! the loudest? Or are we doing the painful and difficult work of looking inward and asking how our daily lives, our bad habits, our apathy, and our well-intended liberal mindsets have led us to this moment in America?