3:30 PM EDT, September 27, 2013
"I, and I think all of the law enforcement professionals, are hoping for a host of reasons that the suspect survives," said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick on Saturday, "because we have a million questions, and those questions need to be answered."
Foremost among those questions is, 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.
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.
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 ages 15 to 24.
A special report in 2010 by Col. John Venhaus for the U.S. Insitute of Peace specifically addresses the appeal of al-Qaida to young men, but his findings clearly have wider relevance. "Potential recruits have an unfulfilled need to define themselves. Al-Qaida'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."
Vectorless 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 allow 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?
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. 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.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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