Stranger at the Gate

I think most viewers will experience Stranger at the Gate as the most intense of the five nominees in the Documentary Short Films category of the 2023 Academy Awards.

It is the story of Mac McKinney, a career Marine who developed such an intense, murderous hatred of Muslims that he plotted a terrorist attack on a local mosque in his Indiana town intended to kill as many Muslims as possible.

It is told through interviews with McKinney, his wife, his step-daughter, and members of the mosque in question. It’s quite well done in its presentation—gripping stuff.

McKinney doesn’t hold back in describing just how extreme he was in loathing Muslims as enemies of America, and about how serious and unconflicted he was about his intentions. He tells of how it made his blood boil when he found out a Muslim girl had been admitted to his beloved step-daughter’s school, that she was now expected to have to rub shoulders with a terrorist who hated her and hated America and could kill her and her classmates at any moment.

He tells of how he could no longer sit back and let such Muslims continue to attack and kill us in a one-sided conflict, how he had to do his part to fight back by taking out as many of them as he could. He tells of visiting the local mosque as a reconnaissance mission, talking to the members and reviewing their literature to get a better sense of what evil they might be planning, familiarizing himself with the physical layout to determine how he could get the most bang for his buck with the bombs he planned to plant. He tells of how he noted to himself that this person and this person and this person might well be among those he would succeed in killing when the time came, not in a way that made him hesitate now that he could see them as individuals, but in a matter-of-fact way, if not with a certain quiet satisfaction.

The interviewed mosque members recall that he certainly seemed odd and raised their suspicion, but to a person their reaction was that the best way to deal with someone who is troubled in one way or another—whether it was a matter of mental illness, hostility toward Muslims, instability, genuine curiosity, or what—is with kindness. They saw him as someone who needed help and compassion for whatever it was he was going through. So they welcomed him as a friend, listened to him, answered his questions willingly and politely, encouraged him to return whenever he wanted, etc.

This unexpected friendliness left him off-balance. I’m sure at a certain level he was wary that it was all a ruse, that these satanic folks were feigning kindness in order to get his guard down, but he did indeed return, and each time he did they unfailingly treated him well and let him know that loving him as a brother was a manifestation of their Islamic faith.

The result was a remarkable turnaround. The moral onslaught of goodness wore him down to where not only did the hate and the murderous intentions leave him, but he embraced this community and felt like he needed to be a part of it. He broke down, confessed to them all that he had planned, and converted to Islam and joined the mosque.

An amazing story, obviously, and as I am a believer in Gandhian nonviolence, I’m certainly fully on board with the idea of overcoming hatred with love, with converting violent people with kindness rather than defeating violence for evil ends with violence for good ends.

I did find myself thinking about various angles, though, that maybe don’t fit the narrative ideally well, or just are additional complications or interesting tangents of one kind or another.

For one thing, there’s plenty more going on psychologically with Mac than simply that he was a bad, hateful person who became a good, loving person.

There’s still something off about him, or something that makes me wary. I think he has the kind of grandiose personality where he has to see himself and his interests as especially important and extreme. He can’t just have a low level discomfort with Islam and Muslims; he has to be in the tiny fraction of 1% of people who hate something so much that they’re willing to oppose it with mass murder. Islam can’t just be something he misjudged that’s really a mixture of good and bad like any other belief system; it has to be the most enlightened philosophy deserving of committing your life to. The members of this mosque can’t just be nice people; they have to be the ideal community that he’s always subconsciously craved being accepted as a member of. He can’t just have changed his mind about striking out in anger against Muslims; he has to have had the most dramatic change in attitude possible that warrants a documentary film and can serve as an example of the extraordinary moral reformation possible in the human heart.

The film presents him as having been so violently anti-Muslim that he’s the last person in the world you’d ever expect to eventually get to the point of singing the praises of Muslims and converting to Islam, like that’s the height of irony. Well, yes and no. I agree he moves about as far as it’s possible to move from one extreme to the other, but he also strikes me as the kind of extremist, somewhat unstable, guy that if he’s going to move at all there’s a pretty good chance it will indeed be to the opposite extreme.

I also found myself thinking about the dynamics of his marriage from the minimal tidbits we get in the film, which include that his wife entered into a long distance romance with him where his being a career Marine was one of the attractions to her, and to the mention of their having gotten divorced after his great conversion, with her stating briefly and carefully in an interview that while she understood and respected that embracing Islam was right for him, it wasn’t right for her.

Certainly it’s very common for people to have a higher opinion of someone and higher expectations of them based on their having a military background, and specifically for a person to see them as a more promising mate, all else being equal.

As a pacifist, though, that’s certainly not an instinctive reaction that I share. I think military training and military experience, with the Marines being the most extreme branch in this country, is a very dangerous process that dehumanizes people. Obviously I don’t mean that anyone with, say, Mac’s background of several decades in the Marines necessarily will be a bad person. It’s overcomeable, on a case-by-case basis. Nor do I want to get into an argument about whether taking a subset of your population and turning them into trained, obedient killers is a necessary evil compared with the alternative of losing wars and being conquered by other countries who don’t hesitate to create such killers for their use.

But to say that, all else being equal, you were drawn to someone as a potential mate because they had spent their whole adult life in the Marines is to me as bizarre and unhealthy as those women who are drawn to men who’ve spent most of their life in prison, or someone saying they’d prefer a partner who was horribly abused as a child. Again, I’m not denying that a person as deeply into military culture as Mac (or a long term convict, or a person horribly abused as a child) could turn out to be a good person and wonderful partner, but that would be because they overcame very negative environments and experiences that many people don’t. To go out of your way to pick such a person as a partner is like picking a pit bull who has been trained for dog fighting as a family pet. Maybe you’ll get lucky and it won’t maul your kids, but your odds would be better with a different choice.

And what more can we read into this divorce? Certainly people of different religions get married or stay married, so his becoming a Muslim and her choosing not to become a Muslim would not in and of itself require a divorce. Did he, which wouldn’t surprise me, became a fanatic as a Muslim, someone who had to be the most extreme, pure Muslim, and who, as a macho alpha male used to calling the shots in his family, couldn’t countenance his family members not following suit? Or perhaps was it more that she couldn’t tolerate him and his change? Was she anti-Muslim, not in his extreme sense of seriously intending a mass murder, but just in the garden variety Fox “News” viewer, Trump voter, mainstream American conservative, sense, who married a conservative, anti-Muslim Marine on purpose and now found herself with a very different kind of mate she was no longer compatible with?

I mean, Stranger at the Gate is a wonderful story that fits my moral worldview quite nicely, but while 90% of me endorses it, there’s another 10% of me that sees a little bit of darkness or inconvenient complexity possibly peeking out here and there from beneath this inspiring little morality tale.


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