I saw the masked men
Throwing truth into a well.
When I began to weep for it
I found it everywhere.
I'm not exactly sure when I became radicalized, but it was sometime in the mid 1980s. I purposely use the term radicalize because, with the rise of globalized insurgency in general and al Qaeda and now ISIS in particular, the word has become a favorite in the media, especially for those on the right.
Sean Hannity likes to talk fast, and he uses the term over and over as if it sounds good to him. The problem is he misuses the word. When it pops up these days, it's in reference to young Americans or Europeans recruited on-line by violent Muslims to join a jihadi organization or, specifically, to be recruited to work for ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The more accurate word for this behavior would be to use the term extremist. Radical refers more to ideas and how someone thinks, while extremist refers to behavior, what someone does.
I'm a radical; but I'm not an extremist. Using myself, I'd distinguish the terms this way: I think Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney should be in prison for mass murder, but since this is obviously not in the cards I don't advocate violent actions be taken against either man. My understanding of the history of the Vietnam and the Iraq Wars is radical in that I refuse to go along with selective propaganda about those wars; I choose not to willfully forget the damning facts about those wars. In this country, that's a radical frame of mind. The word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which means root. The roots of both those wars are damnable and, if there was real justice, men like Kissinger and Cheney would be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.
The facts are clear that the roots of the Iraq war are tangled with premeditated dishonesty and misuse of power; there's plenty of criminal malfeasance if there was a prosecutor to prosecute. Bringing this radical view right up to the moment, I guarantee (I'm confident saying this) that without that war and the horrors it unleashed in Anbar Province there would be no such thing as ISIS. What the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war did was extremisize the people now unleashing violence and fury in Anbar Province and surrounding areas. (Don't bother looking extremisize up in your dictionary, because I just made it up.)
What radicalized me was ending up in the mid-1970s a very frustrated young man in inner city Philadelphia. This followed a childhood in rural, redneck south Dade County, Florida, a transplant from New Jersey. There was an influential tour in Vietnam, then an English degree from Florida State University. I came to Philadelphia for graduate school in Journalism at Temple University and ended up staying to work for local inner city newspapers. I had never lived in a city before.
I wasn't critical of the Vietnam War until I read the history of the war. I was a naïve 19-year-old radio direction finder in the mountains west of Pleiku. My job had been to locate young Vietnamese soldiers opposed to a US occupying army that I was an unwitting part of. I learned my enemy had been a US ally during World War Two, and all they wanted was freedom from the French colonial military that had capitulated to the Japanese. FDR spoke about supporting the de-colonization process; but Truman succumbed to Cold War fears and supported the French desire to re-colonize Vietnam.
Nothing will radicalize a young man more than to learn he had been hoodwinked by his leaders into serving a bad cause.
I taught myself photography. I became an EMT and volunteered at night with an ambulance corps in a mixed-race area of Philadelphia. I fed the homeless in back alleys every Wednesday night, where I enjoyed socializing with other, like-minded people. I read about Central America and joined a group of labor unionists on a trip to Honduras. The unionists asked Honduran officials about reports of the murder and disappearance of union leaders and human rights workers. This disturbed the Honduran government and its US master, which was then up to its neck operating the Contra War against neighboring Nicaragua. We were arrested and deported.
I was barred from returning to Honduras. But by the early 1990s, I'd made ten trips as a photographer to Nicaragua and into the rebel zones of El Salvador. This stuff really radicalized me. A friend once suggested I was being brainwashed when I went to Central America; she knew this, of course, from watching television. I knew the real reason was it was all wrapped up in the Cold War, that huge political and cultural meta-narrative that had given us the Vietnam War. It was now giving us atrocities in Central America, and I was hearing first-hand the personal, human stories of these atrocities.
I loved literature as a kid, so I studied creative writing in college and, looking back, I think it made me insist on more moral complexity than we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. I was struck with a bad case of empathy. There was always another way to look at anything and everything: there were different voices for different perspectives. Truth became more important than power as I watched the culture go full-throttle into the post-Reagan age of funny finance. The key factor in my radicalization was a determination not to look away. Our political culture offers an amazing number of opportunities to look away. There's the material dream, the pursuit of power and all sorts of comforting ideologies and institutions that provide an easy place to hide from discomforting truths. There's the time-honored Bread and Circus.
As might be expected, my life had not been going terribly well in the money-making realm. Business and entrepreneurial enterprises bored me, though I learned to sell myself as a free-lance photographer and I undertook a number of money-making sidelines like making custom bookcases. I scraped by. It never occurred to me I was abandoning or betraying my class. An editor at a business newspaper once told me: "The trouble with you, John, is you don't know on which side your bread is buttered." I'm afraid she was right.
The people I admired in history and current events were people who struggled mightily with ideas and with crafts like writing and photography, using them to dialogue with the real world. I began to see one of the strengths of the class I came from was the ability not to see things that might encumber or slow down upward mobility or cut into the profit margin. Of course, I did my time looking to the poorer classes for authenticity.