04/24/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 06/24/2013 05:12 EDT

The Boston Bombers Are Not the "Other"


Today's hot topic is radicalization. Google it, and you'll find over a million entries. Everyone is asking how "home-grown" young men become terrorists. The more politically correct writers avoid mentioning religion, but it's another nail in the brand of Islam -- something about the religion, we think, can radicalize its young men.

But a larger perspective is in order. For whatever reasons, a small minority of young men act out their hurt and anger by joining whatever "bad guys" they are exposed to. The apparent motivation may be greed -- joining a criminal gang pushing drugs and carrying handguns. It may be political -- joining the Red Brigade or FLQ. It may be religious -- joining the IRA or Al Qaeda. The reward may be riches or political change or heaven. But it's not really the reward that matters.

Young boys see role models all around them. The boys who feel successful and supported aspire to be like the doctors or software engineers or fathers or teachers they encounter. All teenagers feel the need to rebel and establish themselves as adults, but for most, that means music and clothes and sneering at your parents' views and sex -- following which they go off to college or a job (dead end or otherwise). The most ambitious will become our leaders and our artists and our scientists.

Boys who feel like failures and who feel abandoned aspire for the one thing that will vindicate them -- power. They may find that power on the football field, or in video games, or in the arts. Some join left or right wing political groups -- whether they worship Marx or Ayn Rand. Or they may give up on life and move into their parents' basements. But for whatever reason, a very small minority (the bookend of the successful, ambitious group) will push that need for power into a need to cause as much destruction as possible.

They have no empathy for the people who might get hurt. This is as true of the gangsters with guns as it is of the radicals with bombs (or, for that matter, of the Bernie Madoffs of the business world).

We are not very frightened of the gangsters with guns, because they mostly kill each other (and in far greater numbers in North America than the other bad guys). We are more frightened by the angry young men who shoot school children or moviegoers. Their victims might be us. But we try to justify their actions to ourselves by arguing that they are mentally ill, which means that at least there is no conspiracy involved.

We are most frightened by the angry young men who were born (or their parents were born) in countries we've never been to and who follow religions we don't understand. They fuel our need to find a conspiracy. They may be trained by evil men abroad, in countries like Iran that want to destroy the world. We put them in the "other" category, where it is safe to hate and fear them. They are not "us."

It is when those angry young men act and look just like other young men that we are most scared. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an ordinary college kid, who looks rather like a young Justin Trudeau. No one predicted what he would do. Like aliens from outer space who blend in with humans until they are ready to take over the world, they walk among us. As so we ask for a foolproof test to detect them -- a way to know who will be radicalized, and why and by whom.

In the final analysis, though, they are just like us. There will always be a small minority of angry young men who want power. Of course we should try to catch them before they shoot people or blow people up or steal people's savings. And of course we should try to teach all our kids empathy, and steer them towards role models who will help them channel their anger in different directions. But to pretend that today's young, North American terrorists are unique, or that Islam has created terrorists unlike any we have ever seen before, is naïve. Before we all shoot from the hip, we need some perspective.

Boston Marathon Bombings