The details about Mohammad Abdulazeez, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga grad accused of murdering four Marines and a sailor, dripped out in the familiar pattern. The first thing to come out of the shocking news is the name of the alleged attacker. Then there is speculation about what sick ideology may have inspired the horrendous act. And there are pictures of the comfy suburban nest the killer came from alongside interviews with baffled neighbors.
Finally comes the inside story bearing the inevitable headline, "Family Troubles Before Killings in Chattanooga." Abdulazeez's mother had tried to divorce the father in 2009, accusing him of abusing her and the children and planning to take a second wife, which he held would have been allowable under Islamic law. The parents reconciled, but that's a lot of craziness.
As for Mohammad, he was facing a court date for drunken driving and illegal drug use and had been fired from a job at a nuclear plant. A family spokesman said the 24-year-old had been fighting depression, pointing to mental illness as a possible cause.
It takes an extremely twisted personality — twisted for whatever combination of reasons — to shoot unarmed strangers, which the Marines and sailor were. So the terrorist needs a larger cause to hide behind.
It appears that Abdulazeez chose radical Islam as a cover for his personal disintegration — though investigators do not yet know whether organized Mideast terrorist groups got to him during a visit to Jordan.
Look at the back stories of other young men who committed or are accused of committing acts of terrorism in this country. The similarities are hard to ignore.
Consider Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged with massacring worshippers at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. His parents had gone through multiple divorces, and he had reportedly attended at least seven schools.
The kid was obviously unbalanced. He had previously dressed in black and asked creepy questions of workers at a mall. Police found drugs on him, and he was ordered to stay away from the shopping center. Quite the mess, Roof found grandiosity among the fumes of white supremacist ideology.
Adam Lanza was the 20-year-old who shot up an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, murdering 26, mostly children. He was mentally ill, beyond a doubt. But even more craziness reigned behind his freshly painted suburban front door. Lanza's mother was a gun nut who left weapons and ammunition lying around the house. He hadn't seen his father in two years.
Neighbors saw Lanza as "a little weird" but not homicidal, according to a New Yorker article. But psychiatrists observed a deeply disturbed individual, his feelings of worthlessness alternating with flashes of self-importance.
And although Lanza didn't seem glued to a particular ideology, the article did not hesitate to label him a terrorist: "Adam Lanza was a terrorist for an unknowable cause," it said.
About half of mass murderers kill themselves at the end. As a Harvard psychiatrist noted, they want to "end life early surrounded by an (aura) of apocalyptic destruction."
As such, Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old Germanwings co-pilot who crashed a planeload of passengers into a mountainside, could be called a terrorist, as well.
The question remains about what mix of toxic thinking and brain chemicals would motivate these people, all men in their 20s, to kill masses of unarmed innocents. And with that, we must wonder how much a role teachers of cracked belief systems play in causing such atrocities.
Do they create terrorists out of normal people, or do they provide the match that ignites walking tinderboxes of inner chaos? No easy answers are forthcoming.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)
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