Wednesday, April 24, 2013

After Boston: Why It's Important That We Keep Asking 'Why?' 'huffingtonpost'

"I, and all of the law enforcement professionals, are hoping for a host of reasons that the suspect survives," said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Saturday, "because we have a million questions, and those questions need to be answered."

Foremost among those questions is, why? Or, as NBC's Pete Williams put it on Meet the Press, "the biggest question for investigators now is a) you know, why did he turn this way?" This sentiment was echoed by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who recounted the celebration that ensued in the bar she was in when Tsarnaev was captured: "Everybody was just screaming, 'thank God we got him alive,' because they want the answer to the question, why?"

A lot of the who, what, where and how of the bombing and what led up to it have already been answered and, no doubt, more details will eventually be filled in. The why, however, is the more elusive question. But it's also a crucial one. And the why we need answered has to do with more than just questions about Chechnya and Russia, and the conflict between the two. We also need to know why we have so many disaffected young men in our culture, and what compels them to act out that disaffection in violent ways.

I'm in no way suggesting that "society" is to blame for these unspeakable murders, nor that the surviving Tsarnaev brother should, in any way, not be held fully accountable. But to understand is not to condone, and conflating the two only makes it more likely that other similarly violent incidents will happen, more lives will be lost, more families shattered.

Moving forward, steps will certainly be taken to make public events more secure. Questions will be asked about where and how the two suspects got all their firearms and explosives. More cameras will be added to further ensure that, when the next incident happens, the perpetrator can be quickly identified. That's all as it should be, but taking those steps doesn't preclude us from asking, and trying to answer, why such tragedies happen in the first place. We should be trying to stop these horrors at every point in the process, not just at the end stage.

As Simi Singh Juneja, who also gave birth to a son 19 years ago, blogged on HuffPost:

    As a mother, I seek to know why young men are capable of such violence. What escapes us that motivates young men to act out in dark ways? If we don't ask and seek to answer these questions and simply rush to vengeful judgment, how are we going to slow this cycle and possibly prevent future tragedy? Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, and now Boston all constitute sacred reasons to figure out why these young men like to blow things up and go out in a blaze of glory.

So what is it that initially puts young men on the path to seeking out violence? With Tucson, with Newtown, with countless other places, and now with Boston, the justifications may differ, but the end results have a lot in common. And so, likely, do the beginnings.

"Evil may not have a single face, but it can be reliably found within one kind of body: that of an angry man in his late teens or twenties," writes Lisa Miller in New York magazine. "Angry. Young. Men. The description doesn't explain the motivations behind every notorious bloodbath, but it's a place to start -- perhaps the only place to start."

Obviously, not every angry young man turns to murderous violence, but that anger and disaffection manifests in plenty of other dangerous ways. According to the National Gang Center, from 2001 to 2010, there was a significant increase in gang activity -- even as overall crime declined. In 2010, there were an estimated 756,000 gang members throughout the country, and from 2009 to 2010, gang-related homicides increased 10 percent in large cities. In 2010, suicide was the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 15 to 24. In that age range, suicide accounts for 20 percent of all deaths each year.

In 2008, writer and technologist Phil Groman looked at the common elements found in gangs and radical Islamist groups. "One salient parallel between both movements is the presentation and mobilization of violence as an attractive solution to disempowered youth," he writes. "In rejecting formal society, both movements offer a parallel social order that awards status through violence and violent rhetoric." He concludes that one of our challenges "as parents, teachers and community leaders" is to "understand and address the grievances that drive young people toward seeking empowerment."

A special report in 2010 by Colonel John Venhaus for the U.S. Institute of Peace specifically addresses the appeal of al Qaeda to young men, but his findings clearly have wider relevance. "Al-Qaeda's ubiquitous message of anti-Muslim oppression and global jihad appeals to the developmental needs of adolescents," he writes. "Potential recruits have an unfulfilled need to define themselves. Al-Qaeda's ability to turn them to violence is rooted in what each seeks: Revenge seekers need an outlet for their frustration, status seekers need recognition, identity seekers need a group to join."

He notes that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber," once wrote: "I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me, and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do." Those feelings, says Venhaus, are exactly what al Qaeda looks for. "The potential al-Qaeda recruits who live in this highly charged media environment are vector-less energy looking for guidance and direction," he writes. "They want to understand who they are, why they matter, and what their role in the world should be. They have an unfulfilled need to define themselves, which al-Qaeda offers to fill."

Vector-less energy looking for guidance and direction. That certainly describes not only young males susceptible to turning to radical Islam, but young males turning to gangs. And it also seems to describe the Tsarnaev brothers, whose friends and acquaintances seem uniformly shocked that the two were behind the bombing.

Dzhokhar, the younger brother now in custody, attended the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where he was a star wrestler. Until last week he was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. His brother Tamerlan attended community college for a few years and was a Golden Gloves boxing champion who aspired to be an Olympian representing the same country he would later attack. Yet he also reportedly created a YouTube channel featuring videos that extolled Islamic fundamentalism.

So how did they get from there to here? Did social media play in this trajectory? Obviously, social media allows groups, both good and bad, to coalesce regardless of physical proximity. But even as social media can increase connection of a certain kind, they can also disconnect us from those around us, or even ourselves. When feelings of disaffection or alienation (or vector-less energy) are already there, do social media amplify them?

As David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, Dzhokhar's Twitter feed was a "bewildering combination of banality and disaffection." Examples from the last year include:

"a decade in america already, I want out"

"The value of human life ain't shit nowadays that's #tragic"

Gregory Shvedov is the editor of the Moscow-based website Caucasian Knot. "These days there are social networks, and people make their decisions from them," he told Remnick. "I would not be surprised if they had another life over social media." Concludes Remnick: "The digital era allows no asylum from extremism, let alone from the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men."

Or, as Andrew Sullivan put it, "This is a reminder that we live in a new world: where the Internet can give people ideas, can turn mellow stoners into paranoid mass-murderers. And a reminder that we live in the same world."

Of course, it's not that the Internet is giving these young men ideas -- after all, killing people is a very unoriginal idea that long predates the Internet or social media -- but, in some cases, it is fostering a sense of identity, albeit a poisonous one, that they're not getting elsewhere. Are they, as Shvedov implies, so desperately creating an online social world -- one with belonging, status and purpose, however odious -- that they're missing in the real world? What is it about our definition of male success that makes these young men feel alienated from it? "These crimes," said forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner to Lisa Miller, "are very much about the evolution of masculine identity."

So where is that evolution heading, and what can be done to help it evolve in productive -- rather than destructive -- ways?

Clearly there are no magic answers to these questions, but it's in all our interests to keep asking them.