Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Loneliness and the Radical

In hindsight, you have to wonder if the friends and family of terrorists see it coming.  Did Timothy McVeigh's friends sit around expressing concern over Tim's recent radical interests?  We know it was Ted Kaczyngski's brother who turned him in.  Imagine the thought process and soul searching that one would have to go through to come up with the conclusion that one's own brother is the Unabomber.  At the heart of these lost souls is loneliness. They are outsiders, but how did they get that way?  If it takes a village to raise a child, then what happens to that village when the child grows up? We abandon them at age 18 and send them to the wolves as under developed rugged individuals, easy targets for every wackjob paranoid group out there. They reach out, looking for a connection and cling to whatever sticks. Loneliness is the problem, not moral deprivation.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut said many times how he'd would have liked to cure loneliness.  He thought if we cured loneliness, solutions to much of our other problems would fall into place. If you google Vonnegut and loneliness you'd come up with a good many quotes.  It is a common theme in many of his books.  His novel Slapstick (Lonesome No More) is not one of his better books but it is perhaps his funniest. He saw humor as a form of curing loneliness, connecting with a stranger and sharing joy.  The absurdist plot involves a pair of twins, Eliza and Wilbur, who are geniuses when they are near each but complete idiots when they are separated ... not many better descriptions of loneliness than that. Once elected president Wilbur attempts to end loneliness by assigning every citizen a new middle name and a number, like Daffodil-11, so wherever you go you have an extended family. Forever an idealist. He wrote this novel shortly after losing his sister and adopting her children. I guess he knew what he knew a little about loneliness.

Vonnegut may be oversimplifying, but may be onto something. His education was in anthropology. His absurdist extended families are similar to the clans of the Iroquois league. This league was like a United Nations of Native American nations which included the Mohawk, the Seneca and the Cayuga among others. The league once stretched from the southern Mid-Atlantic throughout New England and Eastern New York into southern Quebec. Within each nation there were clans the wolf, the turtle, the bear, the sandpiper, the deer, etc. If a Seneca member of the turtle clan traveled into Mohawk territory, they'd always had a place to stay with other members of the turtle clan. Very little in our culture compare to this. Strangers are feared, regardless of their names. The less different they look like you, the more they are feared.

Would we have a radical fringe if we were better at solving loneliness? Is it that simple?  Probably not. Perhaps we'd have less people walking into shopping malls and high school with their own personal armories, but it certainly wouldn't prevent the political radical. Or would it?  Is political alienation just another form of loneliness, caused by a lack of connection with the bigger picture or loss of investment in one's community. The McVeigh's or the Bin Laden's of the world may be beyond most of our reaches, but they weren't always that way. What should one do if someone you care for is all of sudden expresses interest in the Michigan Military or in the John Birch Society? Do you have such an effect on the people you know and/or love that you can change their minds? It is my experience that this is very hard work and involves lots of failure and headaches.

Many Middle Eastern cultures are famous for their extended family connections still identifying with tribes far more so than with nationality or occupation like those of us from the West. Yet political radicalism seems to be metastasizing.  Osama bin Laden's childhood was not an isolated one, his household was teeming with children.  He was the only child of his father's fourth wife. When Osama was a toddler, his father divorced his mother on a whim and gave her to one of his employees. Osama went from a household of many children to one where he was the only child. Three step siblings followed later but he was much older.  Both families were members of the Kendah tribe which has over 100,000 members.  When he was 14 his parents noticed his interest in religious had vigorously changed.  He stopped watching his favorite show, Bonanza, he prayed five times a day including at 1AM, he stopped playing soccer and became obsessed with news from Palestine. In high school he discovered the Muslim Brotherhood. If not for them, perhaps his radicalness would have been just a phase.  In 1994, while he was still in his 20's, the country of his birth, Saudi Arabia, had turned their back on him and his family had disowned him.  How many people in the family of several dozen or in a tribe of 100,000 tried to change his way?  If only they would have succeeded. How depressing it must be to be one of those people he knew when he was young that gave up on him ... like I would have done.

I don't purport to have a solution to radicalism. When I read over this, I notice that I have more questions than answers.  I just know that in the information age, a lot of ideas are out there ... a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones. Our support networks are more important than ever. This month's Harper's magazine had a bunch of quotes from the surviving members of the Jones Colony.  All of them talked about how alienated they felt from society at large before they met Jones, how lonely. Reverend Jones made them feel loved. The lonely are vulnerable.  Those scary people that shoot up crowds, they are not evil, they are not the "bad guys" as the media likes to call them.  They are us. I invoke Vonnegut again "God damn it, you got to be kind."


Margaret Grant said...

It is so true. I always think, there but for the grace of my parents, family, and friends go I. We seek out what we need, for good or ill and it is a very fine line. I notice, too, how unwilling we are to ask each other for help that we know is inconvenient, and how uncommon it is to find people willing to open themselves up and share their thoughts and fears. Perhaps we are all afraid. But it only makes us lonelier.

Mark Peloquin said...

All the times in my life that I was the most lonely/miserable, I was pulled out of it by joining a group of people that made me feel wanted (church group, volunteers, new friends). I guess I am glad I didn't do anything too stupid while I was vulnerable.