words Danny Lamb
I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch Joshua Seftel’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary Stranger at the Gate, but even if I’d had any expectations, they would certainly have been blown out of the water by the shocking story it tells. Stranger at the Gate documents the extraordinary personal journey of former US marine, Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney, a journey which is engaging, unexpected, and moving.
As I begin to watch the film, I feel sure that the story which is about to be told will be a tragic one, a cautionary tale about what can happen if PTSD is left untreated, if loneliness, fear, and dislocation are allowed to fester in a person’s psyche. I feel uneasy. I feel a sense of foreboding. There is a sense that the people in this film are looking back on some horrific event and trying to piece together how it could have occurred. I feel sure that this story is leading somewhere dark. Somewhere bad.
As Richard McKinney talks through his mindset post-marine career, recounting the way in which he has been encouraged to see all muslims as targets, as faceless enemies, rather than human beings with thoughts and feelings of their own, we as an audience can feel the palpable anger and irrational hatred bleeding through the screen. It is shocking to see this mindset revealed so openly. How can someone feel such hatred for a person they have never interacted with based simply on their race or religion? How can someone truly believe that a muslim child is a ‘future terrorist’, believe it so wholeheartedly that they are driven to tears at the thought of their own child sitting across from them in school?
And now Richard McKinney is planning to bomb a mosque. His fractured mental state has led him to think that doing this is a way of serving his country. That by doing this he is protecting his daughter from ‘the enemy.’ That it is somehow a heroic gesture. And I’m angry. I’m angry that war exists. Angry that people have died and are dying in the name of ideas which divide rather than unite us as species. I’m angry at the system which perpetuates this line of thinking, which takes young men and trains them to be killers, to disconnect from their own sense of humanity, to obey orders at all costs, to sacrifice their lives in the name of imaginary dividing lines known as ‘countries’, and to be praised for this, told that killing is okay as long as it’s the right sort of people you are killing. I’m angry that these young men are being brainwashed this way and that this brainwashing is seen as somehow socially acceptable. And I feel despair at the way in which people are being allowed to slip through the cracks of society, the way they are cast aside once their usefulness has been expended, left to try and fit back into a society they have been mentally isolated from.
And then the story takes a turn I am not expecting, in the way of all good stories, and yet this is no work of fiction. It is a true story about real people in a real community, and it is all the more impactful for this fact. Now it is the values of community, of kindness, compassion, and understanding which are suddenly thrust to the forefront of this story. As Richard enters the Islamic Centre of Muncie, intent on causing harm, he is struck by the way the muslim community embraces him, makes him feel welcome, makes him feel seen. God knows how long it’s been since he has felt so valued. And by strangers. By ‘the enemy.’ And now Richard doesn’t know what to think. Why are these people, these people who surely mean him harm, being so friendly to him? How can they be so nice? To him of all people.
And now I see where the story is heading and I feel hope. The way Richard begins to accept and embrace the very community he had built up such an irrational hatred for is a powerful thing to witness. Because we all want to believe in the transformative power of love. Of kindness. Of compassion. Of understanding. We are all looking to connect. To feel accepted. To find our place in the world. And Stranger at the Gate gives real credence to this belief. It gives us faith that, while fear and loneliness can lead somebody to hatred, compassion and understanding can always lead somebody back to love.
Stranger at the Gate shows us the very real power of inclusiveness, of community, of being kind to one another without judgement. As Richard himself recites at the end of the film: ‘To kill one human being is as if you have killed all of humanity, but to save one human being is as if you have saved all of humanity.’