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American Lone Wolves: Unhappy, Unlucky Outcasts Seek Packs

By Martha Quillen

Ahhhh, America the beautiful, my country, sweet land of liberty, home of the brave, to thee I sing – even though we Americans sure have a knack for revealing our dark side when things go wrong.

And once again we are splitting into furiously oppositional factions, with an enthusiastic Republican promising to lead us into a stunning victory over “radical Islam.” And the Democrats are pretty much avowing the same thing – except the Democrats are carefully calling ISIS supporters “radical jihadists.” And presidential candidates are taunting our current president. And U.S. citizens and governors are crassly dismissing the horrifying plight of fleeing refugees.

So is this the wisest course we can take? To feud, play politics and turn on one another when we face a crisis?

Americans are a kind, friendly, compassionate people – when they’re not on the campaign trail. But our political process encourages bullying and makes us crazy.

After the Twin Towers went down, foreign dignitaries paraded across American screens expressing their sympathy. After the Paris attacks, American leaders took to the airways dissing one another and telling the whole world whom they didn’t like, didn’t trust and wanted under surveillance. Then for good measure they shunned desperate Syrians, even though those Syrians just might be America’s best allies against ISIS.

The families pouring out of Syria aren’t leaving because they are loyal patriots of the Islamic State. They are leaving because they are Shiites, Kurds, Christians or Islamic apostates who don’t embrace the beliefs or mission of ISIS.

And no, I have no idea whether we can adequately screen Syrian refugees or not. But I think we should surely do something – such as offering aid, supplies and food to existing refugee camps – until we’ve looked into whether we can establish some sort of process for safely sheltering them.

Instead, however, some Americans are even proposing that native-born American Muslims should be registered, put under surveillance, and stripped of their civil liberties in order to ensure our safety.

But will dismissing the rights of American Muslims and the needs of ISIS victims actually safeguard us? Or will it merely make nonviolent Islamic peoples reconsider whether they can live peaceably among us?

Now, alienated and disillusioned young people are leaving the relative safety and comforts of Europe, North America and other first-world regions in order to join ISIS, a bloodthirsty organization bent on murder and torture. ISIS doesn’t offer its new members fun, travel and the good life. It advertises for suicide bombers and promises them little more than hardship, pain and death.

Yet ISIS is attracting recruits.


In Blindsided, an HBO documentary, Fareed Zakaria explains how ISIS advertises for recruits on Internet sites and twitter. ISIS videos combine vivid images of their assaults with footage that mocks American leaders and features Fox News reports about governmental incompetence.

It’s a little disturbing to realize that ISIS is using our newscasts of our leaders as a recruiting tool – and even more so to realize that booted, hooded, heavily armed jihadis are likely gathering around screens and laughing and cheering as they watch The Donald and Hillary vow to destroy them.

ISIS is famed for televising live beheadings, and yet kids want to join. The typical ISIS recruit is young, male, lacks a sense of purpose, has been raised on violent video games, and is lured by the group’s promises of power, strength and a glorious destiny. Most were raised in Muslim homes, but some were not.

In 2014, ISIS pronounced itself the Islamic State, or caliphate, and its emir, Abu Bakr al Bahgdadi, demanded the allegiance of all Muslims (which he clearly didn’t get). But according to Isis, the State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, the group is not only incredibly violent, it’s also extraordinarily wealthy. According to some estimates, ISIS generates more than a million dollars a day from taxes on local populations, looting, sales of antiquities, smuggling, black marketeering and ransoming hostages.

In another documentary, about an attack on Mumbai by a Pakistani terrorist group, Zakaria concludes that defeating terrorism will require two strategies: one to stop the organizations, and the second to stop the sense of hopelessness and culture of death that is encouraging young men to join jihadist groups.

Which brings us home to the United States, far away from the killing fields.

What does ISIS have to do with Salida? Central Colorado? Or America? Nothing, really, except the group wants to bring about the end of the world we live in.

In square miles, Syria is smaller than Colorado. And ISIS is thought to command less than 25,000 men, which is about how many people attended the Mumford concert in Salida last August. ISIS is small, and terrorist groups also tend to be short-lived. The infamous Al-Qaeda, which spawned ISIS, now seems to be in serious decline. But that’s what happens to most terrorist organizations. Their members don’t have long life expectancies, nor do they.

But whether ISIS thrives or falls, terrorism will still be with us. Domestic and international terrorism are both on the rise. Jihadi groups are melding, reforming and spawning new groups. And lone homegrown wolves are targeting American schools, restaurants and public events, which has inspired fierce debates about guns, immigration, and multiculturalism versus assimilation (although not everyone uses those terms).

Multiculturalists argue that societies should embrace diversity and celebrate differences, while assimilationists believe people should fit into their society by adopting the common language and dress. Conservatives tend to support assimilation and liberals multiculturalism. But now some experts and lots of conservatives are insisting that multiculturalism has made us almost tribal in our outlook and has encouraged us to nourish our grievances.

Blaming multiculturalism is somewhat unfair. The truth is, both sides in this argument focus on our differences and make us more conscious of them. And if that has fostered resentment and division they are both responsible – but so are unequal treatment by government, bigotry and countless other factors.

Whatever the cause, a lot of American young people feel alienated, lost and alone, and that includes whites and minorities, rich and poor, males and females. All-too-common news stories about young people’s struggles with anorexia, cutting, suicides, drug abuse and alcoholism show that.

And feeling isolated and unwanted makes young people vulnerable to all sorts of horrible abuses and uses.

Societies clearly aren’t user-friendly for everyone. In public life, people tend to be wary, and they tend to be especially wary toward aimless, awkward, unemployed young people. And that’s true even here in Salida, where crime is not a significant factor.

American society doesn’t offer troubled, addicted and poorly educated youngsters very many options. Our factories aren’t hiring, the army has gotten selective, colleges are really expensive and therapy is exorbitant. Blue collar workers are expected to be self-starters, and more and more jobs are being done by machinery. So where are young people who have finished high school without prospects or marketable skills supposed to find themselves?

Well, one would hope not in Syria.

America is reasonably safe right now, and still well worth singing about. Let’s keep it that way by making sure our kids have enough education to thrive, and that ISIS isn’t the only one offering them a place to belong.

Martha Quillen lives and works in Salida.