Next Door Radical

It's an ordinary sunny summer day in Bavaria. One of those days that get blurred together in one's memory - beautiful, but uneventful. Pleasant, but unremarkable. Simple, yet happy.

Little legs running carelessly through the plush, green grass with knee high white wool socks. Their hard pressed cotton shirts are tucked in neatly inside their brown shorts, with a pair of red suspenders holding them firmly in place. You can see the ripples of the Alpine breeze spreading across their silky blond hair, whirling around like on a golden July wheat field.

The parents are watching from the wooden porch of their terracotta tiled mountain resort in Berchtesgaden. They both exude the elegant quality that we imagine in people from the 30s and 40s. The father is wearing a tailored dark suit, with his amber hair combed strictly to the side; not even one loose hair allowed to stray.

His smile is chiseled on his cheeks. He is happy. The only cacophony in his impeccable image - the two big green stains on his knees, from his earlier escapades in the grass; medals of fatherhood that he wears with pride. He is a great father. He is a great husband. He is a patriot.

When Eva Brown's home movies were discovered in the early 70s, they were filled with such memories. Nazi officers and their families vacationing in the Alps with Hitler and his mistress, not far from the orchestrated inferno of the concentration camps. This superficial image of benevolence and normalcy is what Hannah Arendt famously described as the banality of evil.

While observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, Arendt pointed out the striking normalcy that often hides behind even the most sinister of deeds. Adolf Eichmann was one of the logistical masterminds of the Holocaust. He was abducted by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, in cinematic fashion from his refuge in Argentina. Arendt used Eichmann's trial to seek for responses regarding the elusive nature of evil; where does it come from, who and why is capable of committing evil acts? Her epiphany came while listening to the testimony of this quite unremarkable individual; an uninspiring Nazi bureaucrat who could easily even be characterized as stupid.

Stupidity is nuanced, and in this case, is meant to describe a complete lack of thoughtfulness. Eichmann's stupidity was amplified by a catastrophic confidence of serving the right cause. Arendt's legacy to future generations is the revelation of the inextricable relationship between thoughtlessness, conviction, banality and evil. It is this seemingly mundane nature of heinousness that is deceiving. Germany did not one day just wake up to that reality. Hitler's toxic narrative did not exist in the vacuum. He manipulated the preexisting conditions, acclimatizing the German public to his new normal.

In hindsight, it's inexplicable how easily mislead our collective conscience has been in the past. However, the subtle incremental desensitizations that take place can be almost undetectable. Evil is a process and the very first yards of the slippery slope leading to it are paved with thoughtlessness and misguided confidence. This slope has a name, it is called radicalization.

It is easy to discuss radicalization when it comes to the atrocities of DAESH. This kind of evil is veridical and its most horrendous acts are documented and shared in an instance in our hyperconnected reality. It is easy to spot as a distant observer. The challenge lies in identifying the intangible first elements of the deceptive rise of radicalization in our neighbor, in our father, in ourselves. Those elements often hide in plain sight and if we have already started descending down that slippery slope ourselves, then they are empowering. The slope gets steeper as we rationalize as acceptable any direct and indirect forms of violence. Our descent is fueled by the flawed justifications we espouse in order to protect our self-respect when we violate our own moral code. Unfortunately, this trend is now ubiquitous.

Last week, a video went viral on social media of an enraged driver in Queens cursing at an Uber driver for the mere fact that he was Muslim. "Trump is president, [expletive]! So you can kiss your [expletive] visa goodbye, scumbag. They'll deport you soon. Don't worry, you [expletive] terrorist," the man said. The level of hatred and animosity in that video is disturbing. The only restraints for someone in such a radicalized state are the legal and civic consequences. If we solely depend on potential punishment in order to maintain order and civility, then we could be heading for the bottom of the slope.

One could argue that the apparent omnipresence of these incidents is fabricated by the media. This would be an appropriate criticism for the role of the media in general. After all, capitalizing on the sensationalistic impact of random incidents has been media's contribution in this quagmire. However, this is not the case right now. There are numerous examples that substantiate an established trend.

On November 29th, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that it has received more than 800 reports of hateful harassment and intimidation incidents since the elections. A week earlier, on November 21st, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a press conference for the creation of a special police unit to fight the uptick of hate crimes. According to New York Police Department Commissioner James O'Neill, there is a documented 31 percent spike in such crimes since last year, specifically against Muslims. Couple days before Cuomo's announcement, on November 19th, the National Policy Institute (NPI), a small Virginia-based white nationalist think tank masked under the misleading label of alt-right, organized a conference promoting what they call "peaceful ethnic cleansing." In the same conference, there were references to original Nazi propaganda, to the point of saluting the President-Elect with "Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!" Trump condemned NPI but failed to reflect on his role mainstreaming the narrative that empowers groups such as NPI. Pseudo-intellectual nationalists take advantage of the systemic lack of civic education for the promotion of their toxic agenda. Nationalism and exceptionalism are the grease that makes the slope slippery. This is what next door radicalization looks like.

Unfortunately, the US is now facing this emerging new normal. But this did not happen overnight. Racial tensions, a complex web of protracted grievances, and a disconnected, extremely polarized Congress, composed a causal mosaic. For the past ten years, Congressional job approval ratings have been fluctuating between 10 and 20 percent, with few exceptions, according to Gallup. After more than a decade of wars overseas, the American public got tired of not feeling in their pocket the mathematical improvement of the economy. When their problems at home remained, they lost interest in the world around them. When the DC establishment failed to detect the growing resentment, a vacuum was formed.

According to PEW Research, US public support for America's global role fell to a historical 40 year low in 2013. 52 percent of the respondents had supported that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally." Public fatigue in the international role of the U.S. was also portrayed in a 2014 polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, one of America's leading international relations think tanks. The percentage of participants wanting the US to "stay out" of global affairs that year jumped to 41 percent, a historical high since 1947. The same report framed its findings as "Public continues to support an "active part" of the United States in world affairs," just because the "stay active" percentage was still a majority, albeit rapidly declining. It failed to point out the significance of the trend in their own data of the "stay out of world affairs" percentage rising steadily from 25 percent in 2002 to the all-time high of 2014. The early warnings of isolationism and resentment went widely unnoticed by politicians and experts alike, except from Trump.

The political elites and the media have been in a state of willful blindness. This disconnect fostered the growing dark feeling of disfranchisement that Trump capitalized on. Trump is just the vehicle for the legitimate grievances of a big portion of the American people against the establishment - political and media. No one else was able to appropriately channel the accumulating resentment of this specific demographic. He sensed this trend but viewed it as a business opportunity, rather than a civic duty. He capitalized on those well-founded concerns and worries, and chose the comfort and appeal of reckless populism, prioritizing his personal benefit over the public. He pushed people down the treacherous slope in order to boost his campaign. He has been playing with fire and he is not alone.

Exceptionalism and isolationism are on the rise all over Europe. Brexit proved to be the opening act for Trump's victory and perhaps for what's to come in France, Germany, and Austria. The Greek neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn rode the wave of the financial and migration crises to rise to 8 percent, from being almost obsolete a few years ago. Isolationist, power-hungry politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, foster a misguided radicalizing conviction to guarantee their dominance. They, like Trump, have zero regard for the unintended consequences of their actions. Trump, however, has no ideological agenda, other than the promotion of his own brand. His claims for greatness are irrelevant and self-serving.

America is about to welcome 2017 the most divided it's been in a long time. At this point, there is no need for neither fear-mongering nor turning a blind eye to the emerging reality. Trump is not evil. He is a great father. He is a great husband. He considers himself a patriot. Most of his voters have legitimate concerns and complex motivations. However, his narrative manipulated those concerns and underestimated the gamble of radicalization. For him, radicalization was a campaign tactic and the media helped mainstream and normalize a rhetoric that usually exists at the fringes of democracy. For the media, and most of us, his preposterous statements initially triggered a humorous reaction, failing to realize when humor ended and when a new normal was being established. At this point, using the benefit of the doubt as an excuse, in order to verify whether he will pivot on some of his incendiary remarks, is flawed and uninformed. The problem is that if you are seeking the key to your success at the bottom of Pandora's box, it's impossible to put it back and close it after you've succeeded. Your success will be forever marked by you having opened that box.