The lost boys: To win the war on terror, America must win the hearts and minds of young men

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The Middle East is set aflame by war, genocide, and unspeakable atrocities. Millions of refugees are making their arduous way to the north and the west in the hope for safety. Hordes of them have found safe haven in Europe.

Meanwhile, many Americans are succumbing to hysteria, demanding we seal the borders lest a terrorist sneak in, posing as a refugee. Politicians, instead of providing the calming solace of true leaders, encourage such hysteria, and a number of governors have rejected the idea of welcoming refugees to their states altogether.

The increased fear of terrorism since the Paris attacks is, indeed, legitimate.  But reactionary responses are both misguided and short-sighted.  Whatever motivates America’s exclusionary impulse, it begs the question of how a nation, considered a beacon of hope to the world, can remain cold in the face of human tragedy. It begs the question of what it means to be American.

However, emotional responses cannot guide us in trying to contain such evil. A sober, thoughtful evaluation of what motivates such terrorist acts within our midst is what we need. We must ask:  why are young men willing to enlist by the thousands as soldiers of Islamic terror, risking almost certain death in order to fight against our Western culture, with all of its freedoms?

Islamic terrorist networks have clearly demonstrated high levels of sophistication in their recruiting tools. The recruiting net that targets young men is cast globally. ISIS recruiting videos are shot in HD, are cleverly narrated by American or European voices, and employ graphics of popular video games. They are chillingly powerful, appealing to principles of fateful belonging, of serving a higher cause.

Macedonian riot police block migrants from entering into Macedonia after clashes with a violent group of migrants, on the border line between Macedonia and Greece, near southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Macedonian riot police block migrants from entering into Macedonia after clashes with a violent group of migrants, on the border line between Macedonia and Greece, near southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Young men, of Middle Eastern and Western origins, are swept up by such dramatic pathos to give meaning to their lives in what is portrayed as an inevitability of history, the ultimate illusion of purpose. Such youthful enthusiasm for linking one’s personal fate to transcendental greatness is not unlike that which made young Germans join Nazi ranks.

It is a young man’s unsuccessful search for meaning that provides fertile ground for terrorist recruitment; it is the existential vacuum in our culture that provides space for Islamic fanaticism.

When young men feel called to be warriors, no wall will hold them back. Rather than building walls, our goal must be to offer an alternative more inspiring than the all of jihad.

But can we?

ISIS propaganda usually points to western decadence and sexual liberation as examples of degradation. Our crude popular culture and materialism risk turning our lofty aspiration of being the “shining city on the hill” into laughable hypocrisy.  What is it that we offer to inspire the youth of the world?

Almost daily now, we are bombarded with news of college activists throwing their energy behind a questionable cause. Most often, we roll our eyes or shrug our shoulders to show our annoyance and contempt for such youthful posturing, hardly realizing that we have only ourselves to blame for failing to inspire the younger generation through examples of this country as “last best hope.” Never realizing that we have failed to raise new generations with an enthusiastic commitment to our fragile democracy.

As our national identity ceases to inspire, the young will follow their fancies.

We must not delude ourselves into thinking that the appeal of homegrown Islamic jihad erupts independently of our Western culture. There is much evidence suggesting that we have a “crisis” of young men quite our own.

Here in America, there is a crisis of poor academic achievement, drug abuse, crime, and unemployment among our male youth. Increased fatherlessness certainly contributes to the problem, as do larger cultural and socio-economic shifts in our society.

Much needs to be done to both understand and counteract this troubling crisis of male identity. Simultaneously, however, the problem of our male youth can only be solved, if we, as a society, nurture a national identity that inspires and motivates actions that serve more than the modern individual’s self-importance.

What will become of many of our young men, if we fail to offer them ideals that make them rise above their own circular interests? How better than by showing real humanitarianism in action?

By welcoming those fleeing from violence and war, we can prove, once again, that the principles of freedom and hope that we celebrate are not colorful epithets of an otherwise shallow national identity.

Thousands of minors from Afghanistan are making the trek to Europe in search of a better life. Mostly, these are boys ages 12 to 17 with high hopes of not only finding safety, but of someday providing for their families in need back home. Canada recently closed its borders to male refugees.

Many Americans are demanding the same despite a rigorous security screening process already in place. Yet what will happen to such boys when our humanitarian impulse is so weak that we are overcome by fear and turn them away? Turned away in this vulnerable state, many will, most likely, return not as youths with hope, but as warriors who no longer care about life.

Only if humanitarianism is at the core of our cultural identity can we hope to counter fanatical barbarity that will find its way to us, no matter how high the wall. We must find a way to protect ourselves while, at the same time, welcoming those in desperate need. Should we fail, the great American experiment of freedom will have failed.

In December 1862, Abraham Lincoln, after issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, wrote to Congress that “We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth.” But what is hope without Lincoln’s nobility of sacrifice and perseverance in the face of great challenges?

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost

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