In the immediate aftermath of the capture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday night, President Barack Obama gave voice to the questions everyone was asking: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence? … Did they receive any help?”
This is the challenge of “homegrown” terrorism. Why would young men like Dzhokhar, who by all reports was well integrated in his adopted homeland, to which he had come as a child, turn on his fellow citizens? He and his older brother, Tamerlan, may have experienced some difficulties growing up as Chechen refugees in America, but nothing that would seem to distinguish them from thousands of other children of immigrants.
We may never have a fully satisfactory answer, but the comparison of many cases of radicalization involving homegrown terrorism points to some similarities we need to explore.
At the highest level of generality, we must recognize that homegrown terrorism is a product of the new social conditions in which we all live. Obviously, homegrown terrorism is a product of globalization. It’s born of the unprecedented movement of peoples around the world, the ability of immigrants to stay in regular contact with people and issues in their homelands, and the capacity to spread the messages fuelling terrorism with relative ease over the Internet.
It’s also reflected in the intense pressure felt by the children of immigrants to manage the expectations of two often discordant worlds, the cultural traditions and norms of their parents and the pervasive pop cultural demands of their non-immigrant peer groups. For the young, there’s a desperate need to fit in, yet be seemingly unique, and the torque of the situation can be particularly acute for those from cultural and ethnic minorities.
We now live in a world where the local and the global are increasingly merged, where geo-global conflicts and grievances receive attention every day in the media and penetrate into every home. We worry about what’s happening to people continents away.
The individuals who radicalize these factors play into and aggravate the identity struggles characteristic of adolescence and young adulthood, making a bad situation worse. But, for whatever reason, these young men are having a really hard time finding themselves. Their lives may also be buffeted by seemingly minor experiences of discrimination and abuse born of their “alien” status, things they’ve taken to heart in ways that may surprise us.
Outwardly, as the New York City Police Department report on homegrown radicalization asserts, these young people may appear “remarkably ordinary.” Friends and family are little aware of the inner struggles going on, yet studies reveal that the seemingly sudden turn to violence usually has its roots in prolonged inner turmoil.
Other psychological factors seem to play a role, one that separates these individuals from other confused and rebellious youth. It’s the combination and intensity of these factors, in the right social conditions, that’s decisive. First, there’s evidence of a marked quest for significance, a desire to make a mark in the world, to separate from the crowd. Second, there’s a real concern with moral issues, with knowing and doing the right thing – again not as determined by the seemingly apathetic and corrupt surrounding society but by some higher or transcendent authority. Third, there’s a strong orientation to action, to adventure and risk.
When individuals in this condition come into contact with the terrorist narrative, a cognitive opening exists to be recruited to a cause. The terrorist ideology connects the dots in a satisfying way, one that offers a simple but definitive explanation for their angst, provides a grand solution, targets a culprit and prescribes a course of action. Most of all, it sets the individuals’ struggles in a transcendent frame of meaning that gives an ultimate purpose to their existence. It places their personal troubles in solidarity with those of a whole people.
The initial appeal may be just fanciful, and the young men play at being radicals. But interaction with others further along in the process will consolidate the leanings in rapid order. Invariably, it’s the shared nature of the experience between close friends or family members that ratchets up the enthusiasm and, eventually, the courage to act. The small group dynamics are crucial as loyalty to the group takes precedence.
In most cases, the help and encouragement of some other outside mentor is required to complete the process of radicalization, to turn wannabe terrorists into agents or martyrs for the cause. The process of self-radicalization needs to be legitimated to be complete. Anger and frustration have their role to play in the process, but it’s the positive investment in an alternate world-saving role that matters most.
More often than not, the acts of violence will be precipitated by some triggering event, which may be either public or private in nature. The trigger may not make much sense to us, but it will be consequential in symbolic ways in the terrorist’s story of the struggle of good and evil.
In the end, many contingent factors will determine if anyone radicalizes, let alone commits an act of terrorism. In recognizing this, we need to be honest about our own lives. Our careers and marriages often are the result of happenstance, the result of meeting the right person or being in the right situation at the right time. Such is also the case in the biographies of terrorists and, consequently, it’s a perfect storm of factors that explains why any individual ultimately decides to plant bombs and kill innocent civilians.
Some of these contingencies will emerge as we learn what happened to the Tsarnaev brothers, and we’ll miss an important opportunity to prevent other bombings if we simply demonize them.
Lorne L. Dawson is chair of the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.