Boston: what turns nice guys into nihilists?

It isn't the lure of foreign jihad but rather the confusions and self-loathing of Western society itself that can turn youngsters violent.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics USA

Everybody is asking the same question: what turned these apparently ordinary brothers into cold-blooded Islamic terrorists? By all accounts, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev were, as Americans say, ‘regular guys’. They were two young men who grew up in the United States and, in the words of President Obama, lived ‘as part of our communities and our country’.

Like the so-called Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad – another nice guy turned terrorist – the Tsarnaev brothers appeared to have flourished in their new home of America, where their family had moved after fleeing Chechnya. Yet these young men harboured a deep-seated hatred towards the American way of life, with Tamerlan in particular making no secret of his contempt towards his adopted home. As far back as 2009, he stated in a local newspaper interview that he was concerned about the breakdown of ‘values’ and the excesses of Americans. ‘People can’t control themselves’, he said. ‘I don’t have a single American friend… I don’t understand them.’

Since the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism was discovered, expert profilers have focused on young, first-generation immigrant men with so-called ‘identity issues’. Unfortunately, this emphasis on individual identity crises provides little insight into what turns young men into nihilistic murderers. In particular, it does not explain why an individual enduring identity crises should become an individual who hates the community in which he resides.

‘Why do they hate us?’

With the rise of so-called homegrown terrorism, the question ‘why do they hate us?’ has morphed into questions like ‘what is it about us that they hate?’ and ‘why don’t they want to be like us?’. Throughout the West, officials and analysts are perplexed to discover that a significant section of Muslim youth has become sympathetic to a radical Islamic outlook. Press reports frequently discuss the way in which young people, living the lives of typical Western teenagers, suddenly become radicalised and turn into bitter enemies of their country; observers always seem confused and alarmed by this speedy process of what they refer to as ‘radicalisation’.

Take the following account of the life of Hasib Hussain, one of the men responsible for the London bombings on 7 July 2005: ‘He liked playing cricket and hockey, then one day he came into school and had undergone a complete transformation almost overnight… He started wearing a top hat from the mosque, grew a beard and wore robes. Before that he was always in jeans.’

Here is a young man who appears to be just like us, but who suddenly undergoes an incomprehensible character transformation, turning against his neighbours and his country. Like the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid bombings, Hussain lived and worked among the people he chose to target.

It is not just in the US and Britain that people have discovered that their neighbours were not who they thought they were. Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Canada are other countries in which young people have developed an extreme hatred towards the Western way of life.

‘We were flabbergasted to learn that she had become a fanatic’, said a teacher of Bouchra El-Hor, a young Dutch Moroccan mother who has been charged in Britain with a terrorist offence. Apparently she had been ‘a normal Dutch girl’. Reports said that she ‘looked like an immigrant success story’ and ‘hung out at the pub with her friends and was known for her fashionable taste in clothes’ (2).

Across the border in Belgium, people were shocked to discover that Muriel Degauque, a white, blonde-haired, 38-year-old who had converted to Islam from Catholicism, travelled to Iraq in November 2005 to blow herself up. And in America, authorities were unpleasantly surprised to learn that a group of six men, who had pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists, lived in upstate New York and ‘grew up watching football, played sports, and enjoyed barbecues’ (3).

Back in 2006, FBI director Robert Mueller drew attention to terrorists who, ‘for whatever reason’, come ‘to view their home country as the enemy’. According to Mueller, the radicalisation of domestic extremists is an important feature of the ‘changing shape of terrorism’ (4). But a serious question remains for these advocates of the radicalisation thesis: what turns nice guys into nihilistic killers?

The myth of radicalisation

As Mueller’s comments show, homegrown terrorism is viewed as a problem of ‘radicalisation’, where young people are seen as having effectively been warped by some imam or ideology promoter. So within days of the Boston bombers being identified, a local mosque was blamed for radicalising Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Others have looked for alternative sources of radicalisation, such as jihadist courses on YouTube or extremist Islamist websites. The theory of radicalisation is based on the premise that the lure of jihad politicises otherwise disgruntled individuals and transforms them into hardened militants.

Yet it is not clear what exactly constitutes the lure of jihad. Young people who are attracted to jihadist websites rarely adopt a new worldview. In fact, their perspective is very similar to numerous non-Muslim Westerners who visit nihilistic websites and become fascinated by destructive themes and images. Those who visit jihadist sites are choosing a fad rather than a coherent ideological outlook. In this regard, it is worth noting that some radicals arrested for terrorist activities in Europe are neither religious zealots nor political idealists. A study of ‘The Mujahideen Network’, a Swedish internet forum, discovered that its members’ knowledge of Islam was ‘virtually non-existent’ and their ‘fascination with jihad seems to be dictated by their rebellious nature rather than a deep ideological conviction’ (5). In other words, these people seem to have been driven by their estrangement from society rather than being pulled by a vibrant and dynamic alternative.

Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev may have hated the American way of life, but they simultaneously drew on its cultural resources. They were certainly not averse to the glitz and narcissism of certain aspects of American culture. They liked money and they aspired to success. What is remarkable about Dzhokar’s behaviour is that, after casually setting off a bomb in the middle of a crowd, he went to chill out at a party. His Facebook page says his worldview is ‘Islam’ and his aims in life are ‘career and money’. No doubt he saw little contradiction between his shallow desire for more material possessions and his embrace of the lifestyle of Islam.

What is truly disturbing about the Tsarnaev brothers’ destructive behaviour is its depoliticised nature. It seems that their actions were prompted less by ‘the lure of radicalism’ than by the unravelling of meaning in twenty-first-century Western society. Today, old political ideals no longer have the capacity to endow experience with meaning (6), and the West has also become deeply uncomfortable with its own traditions. As a result, the West’s intellectual, scientific and moral inheritance rarely provides a positive sense of meaning to young people, or anyone.

In fact, there are formidable cultural forces that denigrate the West’s historical achievements and its traditional belief in progress and enlightenment. Some commentators argue that the West, finding it difficult to believe in itself, faces a moral crisis. In such circumstances, is it any wonder that many young people feel deeply estranged from the Western way of life? Fortunately, only a handful opt for the nihilistic course of action taken by the Boston bombers. But the real problem is not to be found in the impressionable minds of youths but in the failure of society to inspire these young people with positive and forward-looking ideals.

Young people are not being seduced by mystical jihadist ideologies; they are being driven away by a society that fails to lead or enthuse or move them. There will, of course, always be a handful of confused and disturbed individuals who opt for acts of violent destruction. But as long as their community believes in itself, the damage they cause will be contained. The experience of the post-9/11 world shows that winning the arguments for an open society is the most effective answer to the threat of terror.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today