Why, for some, rebellion turns to violence
Strong mentors and issues that hit close to home may have had role in Canada plot.
TORONTO — Young, well-educated, and raised with all the comforts of Western society, they had lives that shone with promise and opportunity. But they chose a path of terrible violence, plotting to kill innocent people to protest the injustice they saw in the world.
It could be a description of the 17 men and youths awaiting trial in Canada on terrorism charges, including an alleged plan to storm Parliament and behead the prime minister.
But it also describes the Weathermen radicals of 1970; the Columbine school shooters of 1999; and countless other young lives wasted in violence. While Canadians struggle to understand how a "jihad generation" could emerge from Toronto's peaceful suburbs, experts say the roots of such violence go far deeper than Muslim extremism.
Those who incline toward aggression are often drawn to conflicts that hit closest to home, notes James Garbarino, author of "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them." Young Montanans, for example, might find common cause with survivalist militia, while the IRA could be a pull for young people in Northern Ireland.
And, Mr. Garbarino adds, drawing a parallel between the grievances of the Columbine shooters and those of the Toronto suspects, "Just because your objective facts of life are privileged doesn't mean you don't feel oppressed."
Portraits are beginning to emerge of the suspects, all but two of whom are 25 years old or younger. Newspaper accounts have painted a picture of normal young adults, mostly Canadian citizens with no criminal records: a computer programmer; a university student and father of an 8-month-old daughter; an aspiring mechanic; a star soccer player.
The suburban comfort of their lives that has so confounded the Canadian public may have helped them develop a detailed terrorist plan, as officials charge. Their middle-class backgrounds would have given them the time and money - and access to the Internet - to pursue such plans.
"They have the same impulse, but the poor don't have the time and luxury to sit around and think up these ideas. The rich kids, they have grown up as leaders," says Howard Bloom, author of "The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History."
"Osama bin Laden was probably the richest kid of his generation on the planet," Mr. Bloom notes.
Bloom says rebellion and violence are characteristic of adolescents throughout the animal world, and thinks people shouldn't be so surprised when they hit home. "War has been with us as long as there has been life," Bloom says. "War once a generation is our default mode."
War overseas apparently became a huge concern for the suspects. Like most adolescents, the young men were searching for an identity and higher purpose. Zakaria Amara, who is 20, is believed to have posted poems on a website in November 2001, expressing this theme:
"Please someone find me
I want to find the light
but no one is there to guide me
Open the door someone give me its key
My eyes were closed but now I can see
Please guide me there I want to be free."
By 2003, Mr. Amara, thought to be a leader in the group, posted another poem describing his feeling of peace when he heard the iqama, the second call to Islamic prayer, and talking about having found his "deen," or way of life:
"I am filled with peace when at the masjid I hear the Iqama
But when I show more interest they call me Osama
Just trying to practice my deen so they call me extreme
They tell me I am too young, I am only 16."
But while rebellion and a certain amount of rage may be normal for many teenagers, special conditions have to exist for that anger to be channeled into actual violence. An older leader can wield enormous influence over adolescents and young men, experts say.
"Historically, a lot of the worst violence by young men is under the instigation of older men, from the Hitler Youth to the Red Guard," Garbarino says.
The oldest suspect, 43-year-old Qayyum Abdul Jamal, was a school bus driver who befriended young men at the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre. At the suburban Toronto storefront mosque, Mr. Jamal attracted attention for his radical rhetoric - and for how Muslim youths seemed to flock to him and soak up everything he said.
One Parliament member, Liberal Wajid Khan, recalled his confrontation with Jamal last year. While introducing Mr. Khan to the room, Jamal began railing against Canadian troops' presence in Afghanistan, accusing Canadian soldiers of raping Muslim women.
Mr. Khan told The Canadian Press he denounced Jamal and walked out. Still, he said that he was surprised by news of the arrests: "I didn't think that these things had gone that far."
A persuasive mentor can create a sense of personal, immediate rage about events happening far from youths' lives - such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although geographically far from Canada, those conflicts are a topic of daily concern and debate in the Muslim communities where the suspects lived.
"After the Vietnam War, and 2 million Vietnamese had died, why didn't we have groups of [Vietnamese] suicide bombers here in the US? There weren't any, because Buddhist priests weren't telling them to do that," says Marc Gopin, director of George Mason University's Center on Religion, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution in Washington.
With a little leadership, Mr. Gopin says, it's easy to create and harness rage in young people. It's possible for people who have never experienced the hardships of war to get even more upset and radical about it than those who have.
In the case of Western born-and-raised Islamic terrorists, Gopin says, "It's not based on the personal experience of grievance; it's a constructed grievance."
Those grievances take root in a culture where boys and young men are primed for violence by years of social conditioning, says Carl Taylor, a criminologist at Michigan State University who has studied urban violence in Detroit for decades. He says that he sees more similarities than differences in the angry young African-American men who join gangs and the angry young Muslim men who join the jihad movement.
"There's a message to men that you're being a man, you're being honorable, by being violent," Mr. Taylor says. "Young men have more machismo today than I've ever seen."