Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Creating Young Martyrs: What Leads Young People to Resort to Violence?

The accused Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, grew up in my home town of Cambridge and went to the high school my kids attended. They look like kids my children would have gone to school with, and their friends and family describe them in ways that make them seem normal and good. How could young folks we might easily have known and loved act intentionally to create carnage, terror, and radical disruption of lives and psyches? As President Obama asked: What would lead them “to resort to violence?”

Dr. Samuel (Justin) Sinclair and I set out to answer an eerily similar question when we researched kids at risk of recruitment to the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization (now defeated) in Sri Lanka, research we wrote about in our 2008 book Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions that Make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea. Our findings help explain this apparent contradiction. What we learned, both from reviewing others’ research and combing through our own findings, is that many kids who engage in terrorist actions, or who aspire to do so, think that their actions are going to bring attention to the grievances of their people, which they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as legitimate, and to begin to address a highly asymmetrical distribution of power, a distribution that disadvantages the group they identify with. The ultimate goal then, the “end” that, for them, justifies the means, is to help their peoples’ cause. Aware that they will die in the attack, or soon thereafter, they see their action as dutiful or, in western terms, altruistic.

I realize that this idea, that young people committing actions that result in killing, maiming, and disruption, do so with altruistic intent, is highly counter-intuitive, but it comes to my attention over and over again in our own and others’ data and the words of family members of kids engaged in terrorism. In the award-winning documentary film “My Daughter the Terrorist," where filmmaker Morten Daae and director Beate Arnestad follow two Tamil girls trained to be Black Tigers, prepared to blow themselves up in a terrorist action, the mother of one of the girls speaks about her daughter, saying “She was different. She dreamt of becoming a nun.”

ALICE LOCICERO is Past President and Co-Founder of the Society of Terrorism Research, as well as Chair of Social Sciences at Endicott College. She is a certified Clinical Psychologist, and has been a faculty member at the Center for Multicultural Training and Boston Medical Center, as well as at Suffolk University. In earlier roles, LoCicero served as Senior Psychologist working with families at Children's Hospital, Boston, and as Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School. A member of the Massachusetts Behaviorial Health Disaster Responders, she provides mental health services to family members of victims of terrorism and other man-made and natural disasters. She traveled to Sri Lanka in May and June of 2007 to learn about conditions that make terrorism an appealing idea to some youths.

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