September 20, 2019

From orphans to terrorists: The childhood that became a breeding ground for vengeance

Before he killed two New York City police officers, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley was on a desperate search to find himself.

He “tried on identities as if they were new clothes,” The New York Times reported. He was mostly a street hustler who dabbled in petty crime and spent seven months in jail once for shooting a friend’s car. He tried to straighten out with a legitimate T-shirt-making business, but it quickly failed. His saving grace was an active fantasy life, which he openly expressed on social media, alternately portraying himself as an unrealized filmmaker, screenwriter or rap producer. 

After he committed double homicide and then killed himself, too, some seemed puzzled as to why Brinsley did it: There was no evidence to suggest he had a history of devout anti-police sentiment; or that he belonged to any hate-stoking activist group. He was Muslim, but hardly radical. In fact, until his final day, the most significant thing he ever took up arms against was the aforementioned car.

The Times concluded that Brinsley was no dedicated criminal; rather, he “seemed to be a grandstander at the end of his tether, homeless, jobless and hopeless.”

Homeless, jobless, hopeless. That’s a heady brew. Poisonous, even. And in the end, those three ingredients may have been what led Brinsley from a troubled life to an irredeemable one. But the question remains: Even in the worst circumstances, what accounts for the difference between those who emerge well adjusted and those who are incurably alienated?

Reach deep into Brinsley’s childhood, and clues converge to suggest why he became a difficult and dangerous adult. His parents split when he was 9; “his mother couldn’t handle him”; “[h]e learned that if he did poorly in school or acted out, his father came around,” so, “[h]e acted out often.” He “learned to live on a couch”; and he was “so estranged” from his mother, she couldn’t be counted upon to identify where her son went to high school.

Throughout his childhood, Brinsley lacked security, stability and love. Is it any surprise that a child who was never cared for never acquired the tools to care for himself? Anger was his only recourse, and it fueled a final rage that cost two more families their stability.

Consider the offspring of another shattered family: Cherif and Said Kouachi, who murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo last week, after spending years searching for an anchor of their own. Both orphans and immigrants, they turned to radical Islam for purpose and meaning — the ideology promised the answer to all that they lacked. But what did they lack?

Cherif and Said's Algerian-immigrant father died when they were young boys, leaving the family with limited resources. They were 10 and 12-years-old when they discovered their mother's body after an apparent suicide. After that, Cherif and Said were tossed to the French foster-care system that raised them. They did not grow up religious. They were not encouraged to do something great with their lives. So when they finally came of age, all that was available to them were menial jobs like fitness instructor, fishmonger or pizza delivery man. It was a hard life, not a cherished one. One, you might even imagine, they would happily give up for redemption in the world to come. But before their clarion calls of Allahu Akbar, the floundering brothers “initially drifted into petty delinquencies, not religious fanaticism.”

What changed them from lost children to found jihadists? In a 2005 documentary that aired on one of France’s state-owned television channels, Cherif was portrayed as an ordinary kid who liked rap music and late-night clubbing before stumbling into a dark underworld of hate and fanaticism. It was reportedly a 26-year-old janitor-turned-preacher who drew him to radical Islam by romanticizing jihad in passionate sermons. 

When he was brought to trial in 2008 for helping recruit young French Muslims to fight in Iraq, his lawyer presented him as a lost, confused soul who was hardly the devout Islamist he was believed to be. Cherif, his lawyer noted, “smoked marijuana … and described himself as an ‘occasional Muslim.’” (If there had been any hope for rehabilitation, it was conclusively dissolved once he was incarcerated and found a like-minded inmate who had plotted an attack on the American Embassy in Paris.) 

Once you start tumbling down a mountain, it’s hard to recover your balance.

The fact that the brothers had long been on the radar of French authorities, and had been detained and then released, indicates how futile it is to fight radical Islam in the streets. Drones can only do one thing. Should democracies arrest or kill every person who has ever walked into an Islamist mosque?

Beating back radical Islam will require addressing root causes of radical loneliness. The more young immigrants grow up in homes with education and real economic prospects, the less likely it is that they’ll become bait for ideological tyranny. There’s a reason the first book of Torah focuses on families — they are the bedrock from which everything else flows, for better or worse. Freud told us this; Stephen Sondheim repeated it when he cautioned: “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see.”

We can only hope more children witnessed the example of Lassana Bathily, the French-Muslim young man who ushered 15 kosher supermarket shoppers to safety, before escaping himself and helping French police assess the situation inside. Bathily proved it isn’t Islam itself that is so radical — or any other religion, for that matter. It is the choice a religious person makes to either lash out or love.