A wise mentor of mine, instructing me on the art of teaching, once gave me a rule that has applications far beyond the classroom. He said that I should remember that, if one student fails to get my point, it is the student’s fault, but if many students fail to get the point, it is my fault.
If some lone, crazed individual decides to wreak havoc on us, the blame for that lies with that individual. If, however, a whole group of people espouse some wild view that is damaging to society, we need to ask another question: what is it that leads these people to commit themselves to such bizarre and destructive movements?
In the case of those who commit themselves to the monstrously perverse worldview of ISIS, the answer is no doubt complex. It must, however, be addressed if we are ever to rid ourselves of the horror of this societal cancer.
David Brooks, in his December 8 New York Times Editorial, “How Radicals Are Made,” appeals to the analysis made many decades ago by Eric Hoffer. People, says Brooks sacrifice themselves in the name of a larger cause, like ISIS, out of frustration: “Their personal ambitions are not fulfilled. They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams.” Their commitment to a destructive cause, says Brooks, can only happen “when a once sturdy structure is in a state of decay or disintegration.”
I am not sure that Hoffer’s observations, directed toward the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, are altogether applicable to the evils of ISIS. More importantly, however, and with all due respect to Mr. Brooks, we need to ask a far more difficult question: what is it about us that contributes to people like the man and woman in San Bernardino committing to the heinous slaughter of completely defenseless and innocent people?
At the very least, we have to ask ourselves if we as a society fit the description of “a once sturdy structure in a state of decay or disintegration.” History teaches us that the decay of any civilization does not appear evident until it is about to collapse. To detect the signs of decay, I suggest that we need to see if our national and local conduct has wandered from accord with our founding ideals. For Americans, those ideals are that all humans are created equal and that each human is endowed by her or his creator with certain inalienable rights. As I read that ideal, it means that our society is grounded on responsibility for others. Recent events, and recent political discourse, makes clear that a large part of our society places self-interest above that responsibility. Left unchecked, the worldview of self-interest must necessarily contribute to the decay of our society.
The second and far more difficult question is why so many young people born and raised in America would find it appealing to either leave this country for the misery and savagery of the monstrous world of ISIS, or would decide that their meaning, their “salvation” if you will, lay in destruction and mass murder.
Frankly, I have no clue as to how to answer that question. I only know this: we must ask it and we must seek an answer that will help us to reduce or eliminate the desire in these young people to seek such a disastrous course of action. The fact that it happens, the fact of such people as the couple in San Bernardino, is certainly a calamity. It is also an opportunity for self-examination, an opportunity to make sure that we are being faithful to the ideal that has made the United States a beacon for the world.