Last week a 19-year-old was one of three men arrested on terrorism charges for allegedly trying to get to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. The week before, three teenage girls from the United Kingdom made their escape to join the terrorists, contacting their families after arriving in the Middle East. In the past few months, teenagers from Canada, the United States, and Europe have struck out to become jihadists and I, along with their parents, wonder why.
I think of those teenage girls who have made it, now brides and mothers to fighters, subject to Sharia law, living under constant threat of bombings and attacks, and I can’t imagine why they would make this choice. I look at my daughters and wonder if they could hatch a plan over months involving money, passports, airplanes and crossing battle lines to put themselves at risk for the rest of their lives, and if so, what could possibly drive them to do it.
Perhaps it is the passionate nature of adolescence, the desire and ability to believe absolutely in an idea or cause. Apartheid in South Africa got me protesting, rallying, and blockading buildings during my college years. Maybe these are teens filled with undirected passion, which makes me so glad my 19-year-old has thrown herself into theater and film production in every free moment. Even my 17-year-old seems to be slowly honing in on a future path, though her passion right now is clearly her friends.
Still, these kids head off to warfare and deprivation without being able to understand the consequences of their actions and where it will leave them in a year or two or five.I wonder if they couldn’t envision a future in their home countries and so, feeling no opportunities, took a path to immediate importance and position.
The young men are now warriors; the women mothers, wives and recruiters for the cause. Yet most of these teens were educated, had involved families, and on the surface seemed to have the same chance at a bright future as any future college grad.
Again, I look at my daughters who clearly see a life unfolding in front of them, one with choices and chances.
Did their parents fail these young men and women by not helping them see what life could hold? Did they miss the moment in school or home, the lesson on imagining your life as a jihadist when you’re 30, if you live that long?
These teens, abandoning lives that seem pretty good, play into my fears. What can I do to inoculate my daughters from whatever emotional virus infected these kids? How can I help my girls to see past the immediate appeal of a passionate choice, thinking it through a longer time frame?
I need to believe that there are actions I can take and that parenting is not just a complete crapshoot — that any, seemingly reasonable kid could one day run to a cause, possibly never to return. I want these teenagers to explain it to me, and their parents, so we all can, hopefully, understand the seemingly incomprehensible.