The Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion

Focus on Empathy and Identity to Stem the Violence of Young Men

Boston cheering

Thank goodness Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19 years old, is off the streets of Boston and alive. It’s a relief that justice will be served for the people who have died and were wounded, which was palpable in the spontaneous cheering at his capture. It will take us a while to unravel how a seemingly promising young man became capable of setting explosives next to an innocent 8 year old boy, a zero empathy act most of us cannot imagine. But unraveling that mystery is exactly what we must do. The imminent danger has passed, but the cultural ecosystem that nurtured him and other homegrown and global terrorists remains.

I woke up thinking about the 9 year old boy he was when he came to the United States, the same age as my son. Reports are still sketchy, but here is what we know

  • his mom traveled back and forth for the last decade
  • his dad does not live here
  • his relatives here are emotionally distant…or at least are distancing themselves now
  • his friends paint a picture of a funny, studious young man
  • he and his brother were active on social media and reportedly linked to radical groups
  • even after living in the US for several years his brother posted on a profile “I don’t have a single American friend.  I don’t understand them.”
  • on a Russian social media site, Dzhokhar listed his priorities as “career and money”
  • he became an American citizen on September 11, 2012

He was 9 when he immigrated – a boy heading into manhood. Who raised him? Who invested in him? Who understood/empathized with him? With whom did he identify? What role did the internet and a culture in which violence is entertaining play in his growth and identity development? Who taught him what it means “to be a man”? How did he get to zero empathy for the innocent people at the Boston Marathon, even while he seemed to be able to connect with friends? What role did religion play in filling whatever gaps he felt in empathy and identity, building INGROUP empathy (with those who are like us and believe what we believe) while destroying OUTGROUP empathy (with those who are not like us).

We are built to work for something bigger in collaboration with others. Everyone needs an identity. We need desperately to understand how a 9 year old boy searching for identify glommed onto and developed within one that led to murder and destruction. I’m currently reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree about children who grow up with different, “horizontal” identities than their parents (including those who kill). There are some clues in there too.

We have had enough. I hope and pray that we can dig beneath the surface this time to understand the role of empathy and identity in terrorism/bullying/school shootings, etc, particularly as our boys grow to men.

Photo credit: darkroom.baltimoresun.com

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