The danger in our young men adrift
CHICAGO — Once it emerged that Enrique Marquez Jr. had purchased the assault rifles used by the two San Bernardino terrorists — and had been discussing terrorist-related mayhem with perpetrator Syed Rizwan Farook, a childhood friend, as far back as 2007 — Latinos all over America collectively responded with an “Oh no, not one of ours!”
It’s hard enough being Hispanic these days, given that a certain segment of the population assumes all Latinos are either criminal illegal immigrants or public-assistance-sucking “anchor babies,” without having the added dimension of a fellow Hispanic abetting the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
But looking at pictures of Marquez, with his hipster glasses and occasional goofy grin, it’s hard not to see the face of a son, brother or cousin. That recognition makes it all the more painful to know we’re likely looking at someone who made poor choices, but probably not because he had a burning hatred against America in his heart.
By all accounts, Marquez was exactly like so many other young men out there in this country: a rudderless kid without the means to grow up in the cradle of affluence and parental investment that seems to be the only path to college and a decent career these days.
A shy, younger neighbor to Farook, Marquez was clearly adrift — he reportedly tried losing weight so he could join the Navy, he dabbled in Islam, he agreed to a marriage-of-convenience to help out his best friend’s sister-in-law. These actions scream of a guy desperately searching for some place to fit in, to belong, to find acceptance.
Viviana Ramirez, a friend whom Marquez met in an online forum for students at Riverside City College, told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s never done anything mean. A lot of newspapers call me and want me to talk bad about him. He is a really good person.”
To be sure, what Marquez did was wrong. He should not have helped Farook acquire weapons and smokeless powder for making pipe bombs. Marquez really should have known better than to engage in terrorist fantasies with someone who he knew had ready access to firearms. “He’s just a mixed-up kid” is not an acceptable defense and Marquez should be prosecuted to the fullest extent.
And yet, Marquez is probably an excellent example of the burning question: Why are young people increasingly being attracted to dark, violent groups?
For starters, the Internet is one place that lonely, marginalized and misunderstood people successfully turn to for comfort. And, in many cases, vulnerable seekers fall into dangerous corners where they are ripe for exploitation.
A recent New York Times story about the Islamic State’s social-media outreach described “a lonely Virginia teenager named Ali Amin,” a child of immigrants, who “found a virtual community awaiting [online]. It had its own peculiar language, stirring imagery and just the warm camaraderie, sense of adventure and devotion to a cause that were missing from his dull suburban life.”
Javier Lesaca, an expert on Islamic State propaganda, told the Times that the group casts itself online as “a social movement devoted to protecting Muslims and fighting an unfair global economic system; that it does not discriminate on the basis of race or nationality; that it uses violence in self-defense and in ways that mimic Western films and video games; and that Westerners who join the fight in Syria and Iraq are normal people fighting a just war.”
You can imagine how powerful this is for teens and young men who are falling further and further behind in measures of health, emotional well-being and education, relative to girls. These same boys are from a generation in which about half believe that the American Dream is dead for them, according to a recent Harvard poll.
It’s clear that America has to address increasing homegrown radicalism. But going after terrorist websites and social-media accounts isn’t a silver bullet.
Pervasive fatherlessness, an educational system that increasingly can stifle typical boy behavior, and middle-class aspirations that seem closed to anyone without a college degree, among other factors, are contributing to young men’s failure to thrive. If we are to succeed in stopping misguided boys from falling prey to violent propaganda, we must confront the societal indifference toward the many challenges young men face.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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