In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to psychologist and trauma responder Alice LoCicero.
Shortly after brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were revealed as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Alice LoCicero learned that they had lived in her community and attended the same high school as her children.
A long-time psychologist, professor and trauma responder, her research has focused on children being recruited into lives immersed in violence. Due to her local connections and professional background, LoCicero had a keen interest in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s recent trial. Tsarnaev was found guilty on all 30 counts against him, and he was sentenced on May 15 to receive the death penalty.
In her most recent book, Why “Good Kids” Turn Into Deadly Terrorists: Deconstructing the Accused Boston Marathon Bombers and Others Like Them, LoCicero argues that the exploitation, by opportunistic zealots, of children and young adults can be stopped, and she explains that communities have the power to work toward helping impressionable youth from becoming pawns in battles they do not fully understand.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer speaks to LoCicero about her motivations for writing the book, what makes some kids vulnerable to terrorist propaganda, and possible community and government efforts to prevent recruitment into violent factions.
Preeti Lourdes John: What compelled you to write this book?
Alice LoCicero: The events surrounding the Boston Marathon attacks affected me, along with all who live and work in the Boston area. Although I was not at the scene, I did provide — as a consultant to an agency that specialized in crisis intervention — some psychological first aid for people affected by the bombing.
There were so many losses of young people: Sean Collier, a promising young officer in the MIT police, who was a lot like many of the sincere and caring Criminal Justice students who have been students in my psychology courses over the years; Lingzi Lu, an international student from China who had just passed an important exam in statistics, had made new friends in Boston, and who loved music; active and engaged 8-year-old Martin Richard, by all accounts a very likeable child who advocated for peace, from a family who gave much to their community; Krystle Campbell, who was known as caring, reliable, life-affirming and generous. Thinking about them leaves me, and all of Boston, in tears and grieving at the promising young people we, as a community, have lost.
The impact of the bombing did not end with those lives lost. Hundreds more were injured, and many of their injuries are so severe that their lives are changed forever. The Boston community has shown tremendous care and support, helping to lessen, as much as possible, the devastating impacts of the bombings. If only we could have protected those affected, and their families, by preventing the attacks in the first place.
As a social scientist with an ongoing interest in youth who are recruited to violence, and with a specialty in youth who become terrorists, I knew that I had a unique responsibility to search for answers to the questions raised by my neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the bombers had grown up — including the same question that President [Barack] Obama had asked: “…what would bring these young men, who had lived in our communities and studied in our schools, to resort to violence?” While none of us can undo the horror of April 15, 2013, I believe we can, together, shape the future to reduce the likelihood of such horror occurring again. And prevention starts with knowledge.
In 2007, I had traveled to a country where a civil war was going on to talk to kids about the war, and about why kids would choose to fight as part of one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE. I wrote about the results of that research in the book called Creating Young Martyrs. As I explored and researched the events in Boston, I found that some of what I had learned in Sri Lanka was parallel to what I was learning about the Boston Marathon bombing. I started to write. My editor at Praeger and I decided that this research, too, should turn into a book-length report.
Writing the book was not exactly a pleasure. Researching this particularly tragic set of events necessitated immersion into some of the saddest, most gruesome and difficult subject matter of my career. I was compelled to finish the book because I am in a unique position to contribute to understanding youthful terrorists as a step on the way to prevention, and I believed then, and still believe, that the knowledge and understanding I have gained is worthy of consideration. I wrote the book for experts and lay people alike, and evidently it has been successful in that lay readers find it accessible.
John: What aspects set Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev apart from other youth in the community, and even among those who share a similar background?
LoCicero: This is one of the important questions scholars wish they could answer decisively. We are not ready to do that as yet. We do not know whether there are any internal factors that predisposed these brothers to be recruited. We need to have more independent research before we can say with certainty why some kids are more likely to be at risk of being recruited to lives of violence than others. When we find the answers to those questions, they may or may not have anything to do with personality or internal predispositions. So the research has to focus not only on the inner life of the individuals, but on their circumstances and experiences, as your question suggests. Situations are powerful.
It may, for example, be that the brothers were made vulnerable by some of the specific factors I discuss in the book, such as their family’s long history of trauma; the specific ages they were when they experienced trauma; their youth; their father’s illness; their parents’ separation, departure to Dagestan and their later reunion; conflict between their parents regarding the level of religious devoutness that was optimal. Those are reasonable guesses, though we cannot confirm that they were actually contributing factors yet. We must also ask about whether factors such as the financial difficulties faced by the family; their lack of success in attaining the American dream in a time of recession and increasing concentration of wealth when fewer Americans overall can do so; the abrupt end to the older brother’s dream of becoming a world class boxer; the loss of the level of support provided by school and community as Dzhokhar graduated and went to college; or some other, as yet unknown, factors may have contributed.
We also have to be brutally honest and courageous as researchers. For example, we have to be courageous enough to look at the brothers’ grievances and ask openly whether some of those grievances may be legitimate. We also have to confront the possibility that, as some rumors suggest, some US government agency personnel had interactions with the brothers or their affiliates that may have affected their view of the country. In order to get credible answers to these last questions, we must have fully independent research — not funded or monitored by the US or other governments.
John: Why are some kids easier targets for terrorist propaganda than others?
LoCicero: Again, a question we cannot yet answer with certainty. It seems likely that there is some element of chance — that is, that some kids happen to come upon such propaganda at a time in their lives when they are particularly vulnerable. At some other points they may have resisted, but at this point they may find it more appealing. This is why in my proposal for prevention, I recommend that prevention efforts be early and be universal.
John: What makes these kids easier to recruit into violence? Are “good kids” the easier target?
LoCicero: Recruiting materials emphasize the altruistic, meaningful life and meaningful death aspects of becoming engaged with terrorist groups, as well as the aspect of being part of what is portrayed as a unified and supportive community committed to a worthy cause. That is, rather than focus on the people who will be killed, recruiters are apt to focus on the people who they claim will be saved — comrades, families and future generations who will not be targeted by the enemy, for example. The idea is that by a brave and altruistic action, the recruit will be helping his or her people, fighting the “good fight” and working against injustice. This is all a false pitch made to kids, whom the recruiters care nothing about. The youth will end up dead or with no possibility of a meaningful and productive life, but that appears not to concern the recruiters whatsoever. The idea of altruism is apt to appeal to all youth. It may very well have special appeal to kids who want to do good things for their communities and are willing to make personal sacrifices thinking that they are helping others.
If we want to be brutally honest with ourselves, we will have to admit some things. First, that throughout much of the world, government-sponsored legitimate military recruiters also stress the idea that the military is a unified and supportive community committed to a worthy cause, where youth with altruistic intent can find meaning. And second, that this sometimes works. That is, altruism often propels young men and women into government or militia armed forces as well as into terrorist groups.
As for groups using terrorist tactics, we should review whether or not violence has sometimes contributed to bringing attention to injustice and grievances. It seems likely that violent tactics contributed to bringing attention to the grievances of the African National Congress, for example, and to the Irish Republic Army. But violence is not always effective in that regard. Violence by the LTTE, for example, did not lead to anything like permanent recognition of the grievances of the Tamil people. So violence is not a moral or ethical approach to solving problems, and in addition, it is a costly and often ineffective method that does not, in itself, create lasting solutions. That has only been brought about by negotiations.
John: What can parents and teachers do to identify such tendencies and to curtail them?
LoCicero: Some Western nations, including the US, have been thinking about that. But it is the wrong question for at least three reasons.
First, no one knows whether there are any such “tendencies,” and even if there are, what they might be.
Second, this could so easily slip into a kind of scrutiny that would make adults suspicious of kids who, in a normal process of searching for identity, consider a wide range of ideas and identities. Such considerations of various identities are, in the West, widely considered to be part of healthy development. Curtailing them may lead to less healthy development, and may also lead to fear and worry on the part of kids and their parents. It is a Type 2 error — over-diagnosing a normal developmental process.
Third, in the countries that are thinking about intervention when kids appear to have “tendencies” that may lead them to engage in terrorism, they are, sadly, and wrongly, apt to be targeting religious extremism, particularly among Muslim youth. This runs the very serious risk of causing profiling, hate crimes and alienation among members of the Muslim community, thus providing more rationale and material for recruiters, who can then point to the fact that Muslim youth are under scrutiny. It is an approach that is so clearly wrong-headed, that it is hard for me to understand how intelligent people could support it.
Unfortunately, Americans tend to think that terrorism is a Muslim problem. It is not. It is a tactic employed in asymmetric conflict. It has been used all around the world, by groups of a wide variety of faiths, and it is used in an attempt to level an uneven playing field. It has very little to do with any religion and more to do with unequal resources and attempts to unsettle hegemonic relationships.
John: Do governments have a role to play in minimizing the youth’s exposure to violent propaganda?
LoCicero: Experts differ on this. Many who study terrorism in the US are funded by the government, and so they might find it hard to say that the government should stay out of prevention efforts. I prefer to see the government and military stay in their governing and defending roles, and let people in communities — parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, neighbors, family members, health care providers and others — who are concerned with youth in those communities, find ways to create universal prevention efforts that fit their community.
Some communities may want to try minimizing exposure to violent propaganda. Others may want to point out the tricks, flaws and logical fallacies of the propaganda, viewing it as a way to inoculate kids against the power of such propaganda. I think that the involvement of the federal government would make these programs suspect. That is, it would give recruiters another tool and method to suggest to youth that the government is trying to control them. It may even cause some community members to be convinced that the programs are designed for surveillance and profiling, rather than for supporting young people with ambitions in their attempts to find ways to create non-violent, meaningful lives.
Government and media have been guilty of fear mongering ever since the September 11 attacks, and this has, as social psychologists predicted, led to many problematic consequences, including an irrationally fearful and passive citizenry. Thus, citizens will have to overcome the idea that only the government can deal with or prevent terrorism. I am convinced that citizens will overcome their fears for the sake of the young people they love, support and mentor, however, [only] once they understand what is at stake and how important their role can be.
John: Is there a certain process, or a pattern, of recruiting impressionable youth into violent factions?
LoCicero: Recruiters are often very savvy, and recruitment materials are geared to the population most desired. They are sophisticated in terms of what appeals to the individuals desired, and they are accessible and engaging. Some of the materials are easy to access on the Internet. Sometimes youth are recruited, or even self-recruit, and then others in their group become interested. Once kids volunteer, they are often told where they can do the most good — some are evidently told that, with an American passport, they are useful to the cause by staying in the US and carrying out some action here.
The story of three young women from Arapahoe Country, Colorado, who were recently recruited and got partway to the Middle East to fight with the so-called “Islamic State” is instructive only as one example of kids being recruited to leave the country. Four young men recently told their stories in a Brooklyn court, and their stories are also instructive, though different. Some were told to act in the US.
Again, here I would say that recruiting is a well-developed art. It is used in many domains — not only in recruitment to militia. Older adolescents are subject to recruitment by colleges, sports teams, the government-sponsored military and other groups, besides being subject to recruitment to lives immersed in violence. The idea of an early and universally applied program would be to help kids think critically about how to respond to all efforts to recruit them.
(I want to add here that there are apparently some Westerners being recruited to fight as volunteers against the so-called “Islamic State.” The details of this are not yet clear to me, but I think it is not unlikely that we will have a situation where Americans are killing Americans, in the Middle East, in a conflict that has come to engage Americans’ attention for reasons that are yet to be fully understood.)
John: In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, how tough was it for the Cambridge community, especially those who knew the Tsarnaev brothers, to accept what happened and process feelings?
LoCicero: It has been hard on the Cambridge community and continues to be so. It is my belief that it will be easier for people to accept, process and move on once all the trials relevant to the events surrounding the bombings are over. Many people in Cambridge do not want to say or do anything that will bring attention to them or make them subjects of controversy or suspicion — some learned this the hard way. Fear is less pronounced now than it was just after the bombings, but it still exists.
The youthful affiliates of Dzhokhar spoke anonymously to Janet Reitman a few months after the bombing, and their conversation was reported in an article that was published in Rolling Stone. It was a good article, but [it] was buried under the notoriety that the publication itself received as a result of the cover picture of Dzhokhar. In the article, the youth talked about their experiences of being questioned, in some cases intensely, following the bombing, and about not wanting to live their lives being known as the person who was a friend of the bombers.
It is my impression that that attitude has permeated far beyond peers, to adults and even institutions of the city. It appears to me that many are afraid of doing or saying something that will be seen to affect the outcome of the trial. Once the trials are over, I anticipate greater willingness and openness to talk about the bombings and to openly mull over what happened, how it happened and how cities like Cambridge can prevent future instances of kids being led to believe that the most meaningful way they can help a cause is through violence.
John: There are measures you have set out in your book for parents and the community at large to prevent recruitment and future terrorism, but is there something peers can do, too?
LoCicero: This is a great question, and I think that as each community works out a way to approach early and universal prevention measures, the role of peers will become clear for that community. My own personal proposal would be, as I mention in the book, for young kids to be active learners in a setting where all kids learn to think critically about recruiters’ aims, and to find mentors who have their best interests at heart so they can make decisions about how best to live meaningful lives.
I want to mention that several EU [European Union] countries are trying programs of prevention and early intervention. One that I am keenly interested in is a program that seems to have developed in a partnership involving the University of Kent. As I understand it, the program is universal and takes place as part of an educational program, thus includes peers.
John: Given your background in the subject, do you find any common traits between the children who fought in Sri Lanka and Sudan, and the Boston bombers (notwithstanding the many personal and cultural factors that differentiate them)?
LoCicero: There are some obvious differences, such as that kids in many countries, such as Sri Lanka, were often kidnapped and forced to fight. Sometimes families were told they had to designate one family member to join the LTTE. Also, the government was widely perceived to be kidnapping young Tamils and causing them to disappear. I will refrain from saying more about Sudan, since others are more familiar with that situation than I am.
An equally important, if not more important, question to ask is what are the common traits of the recruiters. What sort of personal or social factors would lead someone to a role that includes encouraging youth they do not know to join an organization that engages in terrorist actions in which that youth is likely to die?
The focus on the personal traits of kids is the kind of slippery-slope question that can lead us to see the youth as the dangerous ones. The way I see it is that it is more urgent to change the situation, so that the youth can live productive and meaningful lives that do not include violence.
John: How can states rehabilitate these children back into society?
LoCicero: I assume you are talking about kids who have been recruited but somehow the recruitment process has been interrupted, such as recently happened in Minneapolis. This is not particularly my area of expertise, but I know that the UN and other humanitarian agencies are working on the issue of how to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former child soldiers, and I think that it would be helpful to communities to keep up-to-date on the outcomes of these programs to see how they might be adapted for kids who have been fighting with organizations that engage in terrorism.
If, on the other hand, you are talking about kids who are just contemplating joining an organization that engages in violence, I would refer you to some of the European programs, with a particular example being Norway, where it is seen as the role of adults to bring kids who are straying back into the mainstream. I will leave you with this quote from a policy report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence:
“According to Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer, ‘To put it very simply, in the US, anyone seen as dabbling in extremist ideology is seen as evil; in Norway, they are seen as fundamentally good, but temporarily misguided. The police could go in hard but they chose [sic] not to. It’s a different philosophy.’ The aim of the conversations therefore is to guide young people away from extremism and back into the Norwegian mainstream, and to give them the chance to reform as an alternative to punishing them through the judicial process.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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