When you notice that the typical terrorist is a man in his 20s, it's tempting to put it down to the fact that young men are the source of much of the world's problems, responsible for most of society's crime and mayhem wherever you go. But there's something else at work there, a force we would do well to recognize. But the age of new adulthood is also when you begin to understand that the dreams and expectations of your youth existed in a different reality. Nobody says to a kid, "Someday, if you play your cards right, you can have a reasonably remunerative job and a mortgage with a good interest rate, then steadily build your 401(k) until you settle into a not-unpleasant retirement." Kids watch sports stars and musicians, read about presidents and kings, and hope that one day their lives will be world-changing.
But then they grow up, and the future doesn't seem so grand for most. The week before last, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about a young man named Omar Hammami, the son of a Syrian immigrant father and a white Christian mother, who grew up in a small Alabama town and wanted a dramatic existence. Smart and charismatic, Hammami could have led a successful American life, but a variety of twists and turns over the course of his adolescence culminated with him winding up in Somalia, where he is now a key figure in an al-Qaeda-backed insurgent group. What was remarkable isn't that this promising young American wound up devoting his life to terrorism -- what's remarkable is that it doesn't happen more often.
Hammami's story isn't a story about the successfully assimilated American Muslim community, though that is probably the main reason we have so few home-grown terrorists. More than anything, it's a story about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the search for meaning that accompanies it. Al-Qaeda tells its recruits that if they want their lives to have significance, they can join an epic struggle to determine the world's fate. They will leave their drab existence behind and be born anew as heroes, wielding even the power of life and death over the cowardly drones that populate the Earth.
This is what Omar Hammami, and others like him, seem to tell themselves as they look around and see every society's ratio of spectacular lives to ordinary ones: I will matter, and not just to the people I know but to the entire world. My life will not be a drop in an ocean of meaninglessness.
So when conservatives complain that President Barack Obama doesn't talk about us being "at war" enough, or describe al-Qaeda as a threat to our very existence, they do the terrorist group an enormous favor. (It would be nice if their critique were accurate; unfortunately, Obama talks about us being at war with al-Qaeda with regularity.) When they complain, as Dick Cheney did, that "we are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe," no one bothers to ask the logical follow-up question: How, exactly? Over the weekend we heard Sarah Palin make the same argument to a rapturous audience of tea baggers. "Treating [the failed underwear bomb attempt] like a mere law-enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that's not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this," she said. "They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a law professor standing at the lectern!"
Neither Cheney, nor Palin, nor any other conservative ever explains why it is important that we think and talk about this conflict in the same way as al-Qaeda. Because the truth is that few things are more valuable to the terrorist group -- particularly when it seeks new recruits -- than the idea that we are at war with them to determine the fate of all humanity.
The notion that the United States of America, the greatest military power in human history, with mind-boggling resources at its disposal, is locked in a death struggle with a terrorist organization run out of a few caves in Waziristan, is essential to al-Qaeda's appeal. It is this narrative that recruiters tell young men, and it's the thing that can lead them to make the leap from "I don't like what U.S. foreign policy has done in recent decades" to "I will kill myself and others in the hopes of striking a blow against the hegemonic oppressor." Were al-Qaeda but a nuisance, a young man could not give his life purpose by joining it. But when he hears the same message from al-Qaeda and from the Americans, it must be true: Join in this struggle, and you can shape the world.
Our use of torture on terrorism suspects -- and the incessant call from conservatives for more -- reinforces this idea, telling that al-Qaeda recruit once again that he can be a hero. Who endures torture in popular culture? Sometimes it is the innocent, but more likely it's the captured action star; the scene usually occurs about two-thirds through the film, before said hero's dramatic escape and vengeance-wreaking. It's Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson in Braveheart (OK, Mel Gibson in most of his movies), and a dozen more. When he is tortured, he shows his commitment, his strength, and his courage.
In fact, conservatives routinely portray al-Qaeda members as having almost superhuman powers. We can't put them in a supermax prison in Illinois, because they could bust out. We can't try them publicly, because they might make a speech from the witness box, and their words would be so powerful that few could resist their persuasive power. They are the most dangerous foe we have faced in our history, and our war against them is so urgent and all-encompassing that our values and our Constitution must be discarded lest they overrun our country. No message makes the al-Qaeda recruiter's job easier.
We can't stop all the Omar Hammimis of the world from joining al-Qaeda -- whether they come from Afghanistan, Algeria, or Alabama. But there are things we can do to make that prospect less appealing. Sarah Palin is right that our rhetoric on this issue makes a difference. It's too bad so many among us don't understand just what a difference it makes.