Reaching Out To Young Men

25 Apr

Boston Deals With Aftermath Of Marathon ExplosionsThe scary part in Dan Drezner’s post about the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers is this: “The reason the capture of Tsarnaev felt so good is that it provided a sense of closure.”. What about stopping terrorists? Being safe?

In the span of four days, there was a bombing, an identification, a shootout that left one of the bombers dead and a capture of the other one. Game over. That’s feels like victory.

Now, that’s obviously a simplification and an exaggeration. There’s still the fifty-eight victims in critical condition in Boston-area hospitals. There’s still the question of how the judicial system will cope with Tsarnaev. There’s still the unanswered question of why they wanted to do it. And there’s still the public policy issues that will be touched by the past week’s events.

But still, Tsarnaev’s capture closed a chapter. That seems pretty rare to me in counter-terrorism. In countries like Israel, senses of closure don’t happen all that often. In the United States, however, we’ve been lucky enough to get that sense after Osama bin Laden was killed. Tsarnaev’s capture feels the same way.

Maybe the thing about Americans is that, with the blessings of our geography, we want and expect policy closure on issues that defy the very idea of tidy endings — and we’re willing to temporarily sacrifice some of what makes America great for those moments of closure — or, to put it more plainly, victory.

Talk about being chauvinistic! We want Islam to change, and not to encourage terrorism, but we as Americans are just looking for a little feel-good. Drezner asks, how else we could frame this. How about taking these young men seriously?

It is not by arraying “every element of our national power” against would-be jihadists and those who inspire them that violent extremism will be stopped, as Obama once declared. Although wide-ranging intelligence, good police work, and security preparedness (including by the military and law enforcement) is required to track and thwart the expansion of al Qaeda affiliates into the Arabian Peninsula, Syria (and perhaps Jordan), North Africa, and East Africa, this is insufficient. As 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney quipped, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” In the United States, there are many pockets of displaced immigrant and refugee young people with even more than the usual struggles of personal development. Young Somalis seem to be having particular difficulty, and a small few are moving to the path of violent jihad. This is a good time to think about how we relate to them, though there are probably more easy mistakes than easy solutions. But political attempts to relate these problems to the very different issue of illegal immigration only adds to the scaremongering.

We need to pay attention to what makes these young men want to die to kill, by listening to their families and friends, trying to engage them on the Internet, and seeing whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them, and what drives them. U.S. power won’t stop the self-seeking, and preaching “moderate” Islam (or moderate anything) is hardly likely to sway young men in search of significance and glory. And even if every airplane passenger were to be scanned naked or every American city locked down, it would not stop young men from joining the jihad or concocting new ways of killing civilians.


But voluntary self-restraint by the media, which is less intrusive and supported by many, is not only possible but manageable. (Venerable journalist Edward R. Murrow, informed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the specifics of the Pearl Harbor attack, declined the scoop and didn’t file his report until the administration could formulate a reasoned response.) Of course, “gentle censorship,” like the initially successful attempts by George W. Bush’s administration to prevent airing of bin Laden messages or talks with terrorists, can seriously hamper the flow of knowledge necessary for understanding what makes terrorists tick and how to thwart them.

(Scott Atran also talked to Robert Wright on BhTV.)

Males are evolution’s dice toss: an equal number fail as succeed, and a few just muddle on through life. Women are evolution’s rock. Terrorism is attractive to the losers, so we need to provide that half of the population that needs something non-destructive to get through a lifetime. It’s expensive, time-consuming, emotionally draining, but if it were your family member who was considering it, wouldn’t you do anything to help?

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