Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 16, 2015

Ordinary boys, extraordinary rage

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 16, 2015

Four Boys

Timothy McVeigh (far left) was the principal actor in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  He killed 168 and injured over 680.  The almost twenty-seven year old was assisted by Terry Nichols, but it seems unlikely the bombing would have happened without McVeigh.

A native of western New York state, McVeigh had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in the First Gulf War. After discharge he held several part-time jobs and bought and sold on the gun-show circuit.  He was often described as soft-spoken and affable.

A best selling biography of McVeigh — American Terrorist — was written with his cooperation.  Just before McVeigh’s 2001 execution one of the biography’s co-authors answered the following question posed by a BBC correspondent:

NEWSHOST:  A lot of people have asked me in conversations how does someone go from being a veteran in the US Army to becoming someone who can carry out the greatest act of terrorism on American soil?

DAN HERBECK:  Part of it started when he was a boy and he was picked on by bullies in his school. Part of it was when his parents had a difficult divorce and he was very hurt by that and part of it was when he was taught to kill in the US Army. And then a big part of it was that he really fights for gun rights and he believes that everyone should have the right to own guns and when he felt the US Government was trying to take that away from him he snapped and he decided he was going to take action against our government.

The book offers a more complicated answer, but quite late in his book tour, the co-author is willing to deploy this reduction.

Anders Brevik (second from the left), was in his early thirties when he bombed government offices in Oslo.  While McVeigh’s murder of children in a day care center was unintended “collateral damage,” Breivik  quite purposefully gunned down over sixty young people on Utøya Island.

There is a new biography of the Norwegian terrorist, the English language title is One of Us.  Reviewing the book for The Guardian, Ian Buruma wrote, “It is a ghastly story of family dysfunction, professional and sexual failure, grotesque narcissism and the temptation of apocalyptic delusions.” With modest adjustments the same diagnosis can be found in most biographies of McVeigh, including a long Washington Post profile published in 1995 titled, “An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage.”  Breivik was raised by a single parent, bullied in school, mildly maladroit. Like McVeigh. But while their back-stories are troublesome, nothing seems extraordinary. Each of them: just one of us.

A biography of the Tsarnaev brothers has been published to coincide with the survivor’s verdict and sentencing.  The Brothers was featured on the front-page of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, assessed by none other than Janet Napolitano.

The author, Marsha Gessen, mostly avoids the Freudian frames of the previous biographers.  Yes, the brothers were born into an increasingly dysfunctional family. Certainly there was a share of professional failure, especially for the father and older brother. Yes, there was cultural and personal narcissism.  But Gessen is reluctant to see any of these as explaining the apocalyptic delusions or violent rage that exploded on Boylston Street.

Last week the author of the Tsarnaev book was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  An excerpt from the transcript:

GROSS: The defense is saying that Dzhokhar (above, far right) was following his brother, Tamerlan (above, second from the right), but unlike his brother, Dzhokhar was not a self-radicalized terrorist. What does the expression self-radicalized mean?

GESSEN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what self-radicalized means, and that’s one of the weird things about the way that we talk about terrorism. We talk about radicalization as though it were a thing, as though you could sort of track it and identify it, and that’s not the case. And then we’ve added this other layer, which is self-radicalization. Originally, radicalization was supposed to mean that there was an organization that sort of took you through the stages, and then when it turned out that some people just came to terrorism by themselves, this new thing called self-radicalization showed up. No one knows what it means.

Well, some claim to know.  And I have seen some reasonable claims.  But Gessen’s critique is a helpful rejoinder to quickly applying a convenient label that mostly obscures all that we do not know.

Whatever their origins and experience, the four boys seem to have arrived at a similar nexus where rather than accept what can not be known, they sought certainty in a baptism of blood.


Despite mixed reviews, I have ordered Gessen’s biography. It has not yet been delivered.  So my imagination has full-rein.  The title suggests to me  The Brothers Karamasov, where Dostoyevsky has the father of the three brothers being warned:

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea — he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility. (Book XI, translated by Volokhonsky)

What are the lies I use in self-construction?  What offenses do I construe to give me pleasure?

Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, I assure myself.

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Comment by S. T. More

April 16, 2015 @ 4:10 am

[Excuse formatting below which fails to italicize and indent relevant parts of the post making it harder to read. Seems my formatting on the Mac word processor doesn’t translate when I insert the post in the forum.]

So many excellent posts on this forum but so little time to read and reflect on them, let alone respond. Rather than let another one pass me by, I’ll weigh in with a few thoughts.

Phil, I am always intrigued by attempts to explain horrific acts like those perpetrated by these individuals, I believe that as a society we seek to find some rational explanation of how these things happen—perhaps with a desire on the part of some to conclude that such acts could not be perpetrated by anyone we know (let alone ourselves), and with others seeking to demonstrate that under certain conditions, especially where dysfunctional backgrounds are present, it could happen to any of us.

As always, your commentary gives me food for thought, and suggests books I should add to my every increasing reading list. (especially liked the Dostoyevsky excerpt). I am interested in getting your additional thoughts on a couple of points you make regarding self-radicalization, namely:

“Well, some claim to know.  And I have seen some reasonable claims.  But Gessen’s critique is a helpful rejoinder to quickly applying a convenient label that mostly obscures all that we do not know.

Whatever their origins and experience, the four boys seem to have arrived at a similar nexus where rather than accept what can not be known, they sought certainty in a baptism of blood.”

I am not exactly sure what it is you take issue with. The idea that someone can be self-radicalized; the fact that think we can identify someone as having been self-radicalized, or both? As for me, I am not sure that I have any issue with the idea that someone can self-radicalize or that we can identify such cases. It seems that radicalization is a process that often occurs because of outside influences in the form of the people who seek to take another down this path. Increasingly, however, there is less of a need for active external participants to that process because individuals can and do seek out information, publications, forums and even like minded individuals and organizations which offer justifications in furtherance of their often hostile and disaffected views.

Individuals are complex, and each of our experiences and backgrounds shape who we are. Whatever our past shows us to have experienced, that past does not dictate what we will do though it may give us a pre-disposition to be receptive to certain messages which feed our desired objectives. Describing someone as having been radicalized or experienced self-radicalization does not dismiss other factors contributing to what a person ultimately does, but it does, I think, describe a process which propels individuals to action where otherwise, none may have been taken. For that reason, if no other, it is a process which should concern us and puts those individuals and society as a whole at greater risk.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 16, 2015 @ 5:32 am

S.T.: I am more concerned with the reflexive application of — mostly empty — concepts and labels. Too often “self-radicalization” is just a fig-leaf for what we don’t know. And repeated use of such words distract us from developing new knowledge.

I am also a bit manic regarding our sometime rush to find “rational” explanations. Too often rational means reductionist, and at a certain point the reductionist explanation is just another lie. At the same time, I am often reminded that Hegel — with his typically non-reductionist arguments — insisted that “to generalize means to think.”

So… in an effort to think with you, I will risk this generalization: Most of the time, most humans do not make mindful choices. We act or do not act. But we are substantively unaware and unintentional regarding context or consequence. Our behavior is more reflexive than an exercise in choice. Results — good or bad — are essentially random.

The four boys in my post — and many others — clearly made choices. The character and consequences of their choices cannot be assigned to banality nor do these particular biographers find an external cause that justify such choices. There is a fundamental asymmetry between input-and-output (cause and effect?). To put a finer — if potentially controversial — point on this issue of symmetry: Given the experience of innocents in Syria over the last several years — and the way this experience has been credibly explained by ISIL and others — I am not surprised that many young people would choose to risk their own lives in what they understand to be defending the vulnerable (among other less noble motivations). Especially from a distance, especially through a fog of propaganda and youthful enthusiasm, the logic behind this choosing makes sense (to me).

But to bomb a federal building full of strangers… or even more terrible, to walk among the innocent whom you have chosen to sacrifice in a blood-for-blood exchange, strikes me as, yes, a logic, but a logic that cannot be traced to any utilitarian or ethical or religious externality, and must be rooted in a profoundly fractured, confused, and self-destructive personal identity. I do not, for better or worse, have a helpful label for this.

Too much, too little… and in any case, I am out of time this morning. But thanks. You’ve made me think.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2015 @ 6:44 am

Did the events at WACO and RUBY Ridge get a mention in the book on the OKC bomber?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2015 @ 6:52 am

After 9/11/01 I retained for $3500 a PhD in Psychology to do a review of the published academic literature on the psychology of those engaging in TERRORISM and she found almost nothing. Unfortunately, in the many iterations of my computers, including repairs, that study lost but I made it available to many free.

What would such a literature search show now?

IMO with perhaps 50% of all adults over 18 in the USA on psychotropic drugs legal [but mis-prescribed often by those without appropriate training] or illegal perhaps the answer lies in in philosophy not psychology?

And do some religions encourage mental illness?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 16, 2015 @ 7:12 am

Bill: Waco and Ruby Ridge (and Concord and Lexington) are given serious attention in American Terrorist. All are presented as very much part of McVeigh’s application of reason and decision to act.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

Thanks Phil!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Categorical confusion: “The musical note and knife are sharp”

April 18, 2015 @ 6:56 am

[…] Early Thursday morning S.T. More (a provocative name, redolent of St. Thomas More) asked an authentic question.  S/he wondered about my take on self-radicalization.  You can see the original exchange here. […]

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