Terrorism and Family Ties Call for New Forms of Policing

That two pairs of brothers succeeded in most recent western-based acts of terrorism would not have surprised Oscar Handlin. In The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, he observes that the nuclear family — which had not been preeminent in the previous world of interrelated but subtly separable networks of business, religion, clan, and recreation — emerges, in a new milieu where all these ties are severed, as the most durable social unit. This survival forces it to over-function. A wife might once have been able to chat with grandmothers, sisters, aunts, mother, mother-in-law, neighbors about domestic matters: separation from clan and country forces her to engage these topics with her husband. He, in turn, no longer has uncles, father, grandfathers, cousins, neighbors on whom he can rely, for conversation, for job referrals, for temporary asset transfers.

What he has left, in a patrilocal culture, is his brothers. Sisters leave home upon marriage, but brothers don’t move far from the nest. In the old countries, where people married without leaving the neighborhood or village, this didn’t impact the women as dramatically as it does in western countries. To a large extent, it is trust in brothers, uncles, and cousins (everyone rejects their parents in adolescence) that maintains what little social and economic durability a young man in a foreign country can use.

This explains how intelligence services missed the maturation of these murder plans. When terrorism becomes a family activity, the usual warning opportunities vanish. Most importantly, by eschewing a search for allies, family-based terrorism escapes the risk of failed or frightened allies who drop that dime. Secondly, they do not need a neutral semi-public meeting place, not even a separate safe house. Think of the 9/11 terror cells: a key requirement was the ability to avoid all broken windows policing. Think about why US intelligence quit watching Tamerlane Tsarnaev and French intelligence quit following the Quoereses: in both instances, as planning became more intensive, the terrorists left public view. Clearly they were focusing on family relationships, and sentimentalist assumptions in western culture concluded that they must have given up terrorist ideas and activities.

Eating home-cooked meals and having children has usually been associated with hope for personal longevity, not martyrdom. This tautology no longer applies to every “person of interest”. It would take personal information about each individual to understand why, but clearly, for quite a few, domestic bliss holds a poor candle compared to the bright lights of reconquering a despoiled homeland and regaining or improving the social standing one’s parents threw away by emigrating.

It could well be that while they live in western nations, these young men suffer intense humiliation with each instance of belittlement visited on the women and children they love. It could well be that some of these young men firmly believe that only terrorism will open the door to better social status for their sons and daughters, their faith, their language. If so, as with union militancy in our own US decades of economic turmoil, violence becomes not a rejection of family love, but an affirmation of it. I hate that thought, and do not advance it. But history cannot be denied, and this is what union terrorists once said.

I have often thought the the US has such a high divorce rate because of the way our voluntary emigrants turned their back on wider family ties. To this I now add a potential second form of blowback: socially marginalized families maintain enough trust to build complex plans for terrorism without dropping hints or leaving clues in the public square.

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