A recent article in the New York Times provides a rare glimpse into the motivations behind four convicted terrorists, Zarein Ahmedzay, Saajid Badat, Bryant Neal Vinas and Najibullah Zazi, who willingly became Qaeda fighters, only to question later whether they were being brainwashed into committing mass murder. Reading their accounts of training camps and the almost boyish camaraderie they experienced under the mentorship of strong willed, ideologues, I can’t help but feel a pang of empathy for men who come across like needy children in search of a friend, a father figure, or both. I don’t say this to excuse what they did in any way. My motivation is instead to find the best way to change them, or prevent others from becoming just like them.

That same empathy is, I hope, evoked by my recent novel, The Social Worker, which tells the story of a boy who grows up physically and sexually abused, tumbles his way through foster homes and juvenile correctional facilities, only to become inspired to become a social worker who seeks revenge on the system that he thinks failed him. Pat Barker’s Border Crossing is a similar story of a psychologist whose testimony sent a 10-yer-old boy to be locked up for 13 years for the murder of an old lady whom he intended to rob. In Barker’s book, the psychologist (and the reader) gets a second chance to learn about what the boy’s life was really like in the days before the murder. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 does something similar with Lee Harvey Oswald.

There is in all these stories the pursuit of a “thicker description” of a child’s life. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz said that we can never fully understand the behavior of a community, or an individual, without appreciating the context in which that behavior occurs. That act of looking for clues in the past to the actions of individuals in the present is one of the roots of empathy. Mental health counsellors do this all the time. Occasionally, so does the New York Times.

I’ve been particularly curious about “thick descriptions” because they help me understand the curious relationship between maladaptive coping and resilience. Reading about terrorists at training camps, one can be excused for thinking one is reading about young men at summer camp where there are, according the men’s testimonies, “feasts, singalongs and even sporting events”. These monstrous individuals listened to their radical lectures side-by-side on iPods, one pair of headphones shared between two, a picture of youthful innocence. From the outside, the process of radicalization resembles a church sleepover, full of religious messages and a deep sense of belonging and purpose around the campfire.

It all makes me shake my head. Was there no other outlet for these individuals to feel they had an influence over others, a sense of purpose and a connection to their culture or faith? How needy must one be to consider an act of mass murder? But is such behavior always a sign of psychopathy? I find mental illness easier to discern in the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik who acted completely alone than the oddly immature ways of the four terrorists named above.

If we are to intervene to stop such radicalization and the violence that follows, we might consider doing the following:

1)    Get the full story. Understand the individual and where the individual grew up.

2)    Consider the individual’s actions in comparison to others who grew up facing the same challenges. Is the violence reasonable, or normal, under the circumstances?

3)    Ask ourselves what alternatives were realistic available to the violent individual who grew up looking for connections, power, social status, and meaning. How else could they achieve these good things that unfortunately can be achieved through extreme violence.

4)    Advocate for solutions that provide the next generation of potential terrorists, bullies and psychopaths with sources of support and self-expression that are just as powerful, and socially acceptable.

For those of you who have read the second and third instalments of The Hunger Games, you’ll likely see exactly what I mean. After her defiant win, Katniss Everdeen is forced to tour the districts of her post-apocalyptic world, seeing first hand the desperate oppression that others experience. Her empathy for the violence of her co-combatants in the Games is increased with every whistle stop.

The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that we can only know how to intervene to prevent violence if we appreciate the context from which it comes and the need it fulfils for those who are violent. While there is a small group of individuals for whom violence is entirely a choice, a twisted expression of power, most of us become violent because we are placed in situations where violence is the only path to self-expression.

While I may extend terrorists, bullies and criminals empathy, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see them controlled, disciplined, and sometimes punished. I have a right to feel the way I do, especially if their behavior is dangerous to others. But to intervene in spite of my repulsion, that is a different thing altogether. In the novels I’ve mentioned here, it becomes clear that incarceration can further brutalize a kid who was already abused, jail time can radicalize those who are already seeking the status that comes with being the political outsider with a cause, and our communities become far less safe when we fail to take the time to understand those who have a mind to do us harm.

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