MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program today trying to better understand what was behind the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday that left 50 people dead and more than 40 wounded. The alleged attacker, a white supremacist from Australia, broadcast part of his rampage on social media. And he's also believed to have posted a document describing his motivation for the massacre, which included many of the same racist themes that have long circulated on all media frequented by white identity organizations.
What we wanted to know is, why are people drawn to these groups, and how are these ideologies spreading around the world? So we've called someone who used to be a part of that world. Christian Picciolini joined the Chicago Area Skinheads as a teenager. Eventually, he turned his back on the group and started working to counter the ideologies he once supported, co-founding the nonprofit Life After Hate and writing a book about his experiences. He joined us from WBEZ in Chicago earlier today to talk about how white supremacy has become a worldwide problem.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: What's happening is that there's so much marginalization happening in the world that people are starting to feel like it's oppression. And white supremacist groups are trying to turn this around to make it seem as though something is being taken away from white culture when, in fact, it's just equalization.
MARTIN: What originally attracted you to this white supremacist group, white identity group? What do you call it?
PICCIOLINI: Well, you know, now I would call it a white supremacist group. Back then, I wouldn't have called myself a white supremacist, much like many of the white supremacists today are denying that they're white supremacists. But it was a white supremacist group. And what drew me in at 14 years old in 1987 was that I was searching for identity, community and purpose, and that's something that everybody searches for. I hadn't found it until I was 14, standing in an alley, and a man approached me and gave me the narrative of white supremacy.
MARTIN: Did they make you feel special? I mean, was the sort of supremacy idea - I'm better than these people - was that part of the appeal?
PICCIOLINI: Well, the appeal was that they filled me with a sense of purpose and provided that camaraderie that I was missing. I had gone from a powerless 13-year-old who'd been bullied for 13 years to now somebody who felt very empowered at 14, and the bullies would cross the street when they saw me coming. But there was something that was fulfilled in me that they provided.
MARTIN: And what did make you get out? Or what - how were you able to get out?
PICCIOLINI: You know, I always had doubts about what I believed in. And, of course, I could never vocalize them because I didn't want to seem weak or anything like that. But ultimately, you know, it was interactions with people of color who, you know, showed me compassion when I had least deserved it. And those moments of clarity added up.
MARTIN: Has something changed since you were a member about the way these groups operate, in your opinion?
PICCIOLINI: Absolutely. So in the '80s and '90s, when this really was a fringe-type movement, we recognized that we were turning away the average white American racist because we were too edgy with our tattoos and shaved heads and boots and swastika flags. So I think today, what we're seeing is the ideas that I once had 30 years ago, the extreme ideas, sound just a little bit less extreme. But it's penetrated the mainstream. And I think that there is a certain subsect that wants to remain visible. And then there is a larger and more significant part of this movement that does not want to be outed as white supremacists and just want to normalize what it is that that they're trying to push.
MARTIN: The last time you were on this program was after that neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a young woman was killed, and a number of other people were injured. And at that time, the conversation was about white nationalism. But then this shooting in New Zealand shows that this is a global problem, and I'm wondering if we're kind of looking at the wrong thing - if we're thinking about this as a specific national issue as opposed to something bigger.
PICCIOLINI: Well, I can tell you the Internet has really changed the ballgame and made it a - you know, a transnational movement where people can self-radicalize into it based on the propaganda that's flooding the Internet. And it's become the largest and fastest-growing social movement that I've seen in my lifetime, and it is frightening.
MARTIN: Well, you know, President Trump was asked yesterday whether he thinks that white nationalism is a rising global threat, and this is what he said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't really. I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. I guess if you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that's a case. I don't know enough about it yet. They're just learning about the person and the people involved. But it's certainly a terrible thing - terrible thing.
MARTIN: What do you say to that?
PICCIOLINI: It is certainly not a fringe movement. It is a large-scale terrorist movement. And while everybody is not going to be violent in that movement, now, because it's grown and because of the Internet and because of the rhetoric that he is feeding people - the same rhetoric that I used to say 30 years ago - build a wall, Muslim ban, you know, remove immigrants from the country - all the same things that I used to say.
Now, because of the Internet, it has spread farther and wider than ever before. And that narrative is landing on people all over the world. So it is not just contained to the United States. And never before in my life have I received emails from mothers of 10-year-old sons who are being recruited. So it is definitely growing.
MARTIN: You think the issue is primarily what - that it's a social issue?
PICCIOLINI: Really, it's about what I call potholes. And potholes are those things in life that we encounter that deviate our path. And that could be trauma, mental illness, abuse and poverty - even privilege and being in a bubble. If we encounter enough of those, they deviate us. And when we're searching for identity, community and purpose, there is somebody waiting for us on the fringes to give us a narrative. And I think that that's what's going on in America today is that America itself has its own potholes that are from our past and that America is also searching for a sense of identity, community and purpose. And we haven't yet figured that out.
MARTIN: Christian Picciolini is a former member of a white supremacist group. He is the author of the book "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement." And he was kind enough to join us from WBEZ in Chicago.
Christian, thanks so much for talking to us.
PICCIOLINI: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.