Serendipitously came across a passage today in a book by Scott Atran – Talking to the enemy: violent extremism, sacred values and what it means to be human (London, 2011).
Atran is an anthropologist and his book explores why people are attracted to violence, focusing in particular on terrorism and suicide bombers. An expert on Asia and the Middle East, instead of pontificating from behind a desk Atran risked life and limb to travel to Indonesia, Kashmir and Morocco on field research trips to enquire on the ground in villages and towns why people – especially young people – get involved in violent extremist groups.
In one town in Morocco, Tetuan – right next door to the Spanish owned enclave of Ceuta – he met a group of teenagers. The Mezuak neighbourhood of Tetuan is poor; small time drugs smuggling is commonplace. Five of the Madrid bombers of 2004 came from this area. Yet it appeared not be a place suffused with extremist religious belief nor especially hostile to the west or westerners.
When Atran quizzed the youngsters on what they wanted, they answered by saying they wanted to go to Spain. To the promised land of bicycles and bright futures.
When he asked who they wanted to be one said Ronaldinho of Barcelona FC….or Osama Bin Laden.
A footballer or a mastermind of mass murder.
A stark choice and a powerful demonstration of how delicately balanced dramatic and decisive choices in life can be.
Much depends on what is the strongest, most pervasive and most persuasive influence on show.
Hopefully this week at least and for some time to come the phenomenon that is Usain Bolt, broadcast in all his glory and showmanship on every TV across the planet, eclipses darker stars.
Those who decry the Olympics as an empty anodyne spectacle with little real or long-term impact would do well to recognise and remember that heroes come in many shapes and forms: much better that the role model being emulated blows past his rivals rather than blowing them up.