The testimony to Congress was on causes of political violence, the factors that lead young Muslims to join radical Islamist groups. But the observations appeared to apply to other sociopathic, violence-prone packs - criminal gangs and ideological militants.
Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and risk-modeling researcher, was testifying to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, invited to speak on his research on "pathways to and from violent extremism" (www.edge.org/3rd_culture/atran10/atran10_index.html/).
Author of "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion," Atran has studied political violence among groups in the Middle East. His analysis of factors promoting jihadism mirrors the issues spawning criminal gangs.
Atran says his research shows most young people successfully recruited by radical jihadists were from moderate secular backgrounds. They were recruited to radical religious militancy from outside, not within.
"Youth generally favors actions, not words and challenge, not calm. That's a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious and cool."
Substitute "gangs" for "jihad" and Atran could be discussing the reasons young people enlist in their neighborhood criminal gangs.
He does observe a difference.
"Although lack of economic opportunity often reliably leads to criminality, it turns out that some criminal youth really don't want to be criminals after all," he told the subcommittee. "Given half a chance to take up a moral cause, they can be even more altruistically prone than others to give up their lives for their comrades and cause."
The line separating the criminal gang member from the political terrorist is the cultural factor, a belief in a moral cause. Atran suggests militancy begins in the same place.
"Entry into the jihadi brotherhood is from the bottom up: from alienated and marginalized youth seeking out companionship, esteem and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world's most powerful nation and army," he said.
On the less global scale, a criminal gang member clearly achieves a sense of empowerment in challenging the community's authority with criminal acts of drug dealing, prostitution, illegal gambling, extortion, robbery and theft, or assault and murder.
There are differences of kind. A criminal gang member may have a cultural identification, but it is more likely a bonding mechanism rather than a motivating element. The terrorist adheres to an idealized cultural identity to act on moral imperative, rather than purely out of personal gain.
There are differences of scale and intent between the criminal gangs terrorizing communities and religion-based groups seeking to terrorize nations.
But Atran suggests the terrorist feeds in the same egoistic trough as the criminal when media effectively glorify the criminal act in the telling of it. It's an issue for journalists reporting a crime. Tell the story. Help an investigation. Do not aggrandize the deed.
"If we can discredit their vicious idols (show how these bring murder and mayhem to their own people) and give these youth new heroes who speak to their hopes rather than just to ours, then we've got a much better shot at slowing the spread of jihad to the next generation than we do just with bullets and bombs," Atran said.
"And if we can de-sensationalize terrorist actions, like suicide bombings, and reduce their fame (don't help advertise them or broadcast our hysterical response, for publicity is the oxygen of terrorism), the thrill will die down."
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at [email protected]. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.