Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Generation Jihad

As U.S. officials talk about home-grown terror cells, the Christian Science Monitor rounds up some of the expert opinions on the phenomenon.

Some people have been shouting in the wilderness about this for a long time: It's not the impoverished Bedouin from the Arabian desert who will be blowing up your office building; it's that quiet, well-dressed student up the road.

"They have the same impulse, but the poor don't have the time and luxury to sit around and think up these ideas. The rich kids, they have grown up as leaders," says Howard Bloom, author of "The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History."

"Osama bin Laden was probably the richest kid of his generation on the planet," Mr. Bloom notes.

Now that notion finally has risen into the mainstream narrative. The next question is, if the West is full of spoiled rich kids who want to blow up the world, why do 99 percent of them just hole up with drugs and speed metal and the other 1 percent actually attempt it?

Young, well-educated, and raised with all the comforts of Western society, they had lives that shone with promise and opportunity. But they chose a path of terrible violence, plotting to kill innocent people to protest the injustice they saw in the world.

It could be a description of the 17 men and youths awaiting trial in Canada on terrorism charges, including an alleged plan to storm Parliament and behead the prime minister.

But it also describes the Weathermen radicals of 1970; the Columbine school shooters of 1999; and countless other young lives wasted in violence. While Canadians struggle to understand how a "jihad generation" could emerge from Toronto's peaceful suburbs, experts say the roots of such violence go far deeper than Muslim extremism.

The "moral equivalence" antenna goes on alert at this point. But this isn't a knee-jerk bid to prove that Islam isn't the problem and Christianity is just as bad. Islam, as it has evolved or not over the centuries, is the matrix of the problem. The problem, according to this article, is a generation of charismatic and fanatic leaders who can reach out to disaffected Muslim young men around the globe and fill their veins with the fire of jihad.

"After the Vietnam War, and 2 million Vietnamese had died, why didn't we have groups of [Vietnamese] suicide bombers here in the US? There weren't any, because Buddhist priests weren't telling them to do that," says Marc Gopin, director of George Mason University's Center on Religion, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution in Washington.

With a little leadership, Mr. Gopin says, it's easy to create and harness rage in young people. It's possible for people who have never experienced the hardships of war to get even more upset and radical about it than those who have.

In the case of Western born-and-raised Islamic terrorists, Gopin says, "It's not based on the personal experience of grievance; it's a constructed grievance."

"Constructed grievance" is a interesting phrase. But it rings true. The motivations of the killers are a mix of reactions to real events and policies, and to imaginary ones. Like the narratives of the Islamist imams, which include both Abu Ghraib and imaginary conspiracies to sterilize Muslims and lurid fictions of mass rapes by GIs in Iraq.

This all undermines, of course, the dream that we can end terrorism by creating affluent societies in the Middle East, or simply fighting poverty there. I wish that were true. The evidence convinces me it's not.

This also is why the response of "you're only creating more terrorists" to any assertive American policy never swayed me. They can be as easily made from the phony stories as the true ones. We ought to be as careful and honorable as we can in our dealings in the world -- moreso than we have been of late -- but for the sake of our own values and the success of our allies, not out of fear of the enemies we'd make.

And slaughtering the young men after they've been radicalized seems less productive, and less humane, than finding ways to target and disarm the sirens who shape the unfocused rage of young men into missiles.