The Violence That Didn’t Happen
by Julia Smucker
“As long as you can look at them as anything but human, you won’t have any problems.”
McKinney describes how this advice enabled him first to cope with shooting paper targets, and then to be, in his words, “involved in so many deaths” over a 25-year military career. Of course, the learned dehumanization that’s sometimes instilled in humans to enable them to kill other humans is not automatically switched off once killing is no longer being required of them. “Stranger at the Gate” brings this tragic reality home in a powerful way by focusing on what happened – and ultimately what didn’t happen – in McKinney’s post-military civilian life and the lives of his Muslim neighbors in the United States.
The documentary’s interviews alternate between the perspectives of McKinney and his immediate family members and those of a few members of the Islamic Center of Muncie, Indiana. What begin as separate and seemingly unrelated life experiences gradually converge as McKinney describes his intense discomfort when he found himself living in Muncie alongside people he had been taught to fear and dehumanize – in his words, “being forced to see people I considered an enemy every time I walked out the door.” By the time his story intersects with the stories of members of the mosque, he is plotting to kill as many of them as he can by detonating a bomb during Friday prayers.
What led McKinney to visit the mosque in the first place was seeing his stepdaughter’s reaction to his visceral expression of hate toward Muslims. While he initially went to the mosque intending to find evidence to support his planned violence and even fearing that he wouldn’t make it out alive, his explanation of his motivation for going bears an ironic parallel to his motivation for joining the Marines. That decision, McKinney says, was made in hopes of earning the respect of his father – himself a Marine veteran – which he didn’t feel he had. And when his daughter responded incredulously to his expression of hate, he sought to justify his hate – and as a result, soon began to question it – in order to keep her love.
This very human search for approval, as we see it play out in McKinney’s life, ties in to another human need that also takes parallel forms in his story: the need for community and belonging. McKinney voices a common experience of finding the proverbial “band of brothers” in the military, and of the disorienting void this leaves in the return to civilian life. What makes McKinney’s story so remarkable is that, in his case, this void was ultimately filled by the very community that his military experience and training had conditioned him to hate, who he says “showed [him] what true humanity was about” through their (literally) disarming hospitality.
On one level, “Stranger at the Gate” is a feel-good story of personal and communitarian redemption, of love overcoming hate, and that alone would make it a story worth telling. But it is also a cautionary tale about the damages that war can do to those who participate in it, especially the lasting effects of the psychological conditioning required to overcome the natural human aversion to killing fellow human beings. It’s a story that illustrates how basic human psychological needs – the need for approval from those who matter to us, or the need for belonging to something bigger than ourselves – can be filled in healthy or unhealthy ways and, in some cases, can be directed toward healing or killing (whether that killing occurs in a hate crime or through the state-sponsored violence of militarism). As a story of the violence that could have happened but didn’t, it’s a message of warning and of hope, a story of “true humanity” at both its worst and its best – of how cycles of violence start, and how they can be stopped.
For more of our film reviews, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)
Hollywood Movie Insights II (Never Look Away, The Report, and Dark Waters)