Room 55: Radicalization, Apocalypse, and Mothers [see previous post on Conspiracies]
—I’m sorry to visit you like this, but as Thomas’s Mom you have some things to teach us about his background, why he did what he did.
—You’re here to lecture me on how his actions are my fault?
—No. But they do play a part. It’s not so much about you as what you saw in him. How he turned out.
—I could go on all day about that.
—Thomas asked the congressman, “Don’t you think that the vast majority of chaos in the world is caused by a relatively small group of disappointed men?”
—This is about his father.
—It’s about family, about society, about fathers and mothers. You claim from the very beginning Thomas was lonely, diffident, and had “certain tendencies.”
—He was always strange. After everything that happened, I know I had a part to play.
—We’re not blaming just you. There’s his father, for not being there. There’s his teacher, for violating his trust. There’s you, for being addicted and not always there. And there’s society, for letting him down. But there’s also him, making his own decisions.
—Ah, so he is being preachy. It just boils down to a morality lesson. And I’m nothing but a pawn representing someone at fault for society going wrong.
—Well, first of all, it’s ok for fiction to be preachy, as long as it does more than that. Secondly, he does more than that. Take your leg, for example.
—My leg hurt, and he didn’t care.
—Eggers is showing us that you’re hurting, shackled by guilt, and inflicted by your son. Eggers isn’t just preaching at you. He’s also confirming your pain, and explaining it.
—My son went nuts.
—Let’s classify it more scientifically. He radicalized. The book isn’t just preaching. It’s offering a theory. Our society supercharges young men to go and do great things, “grand human projects that give meaning,” to use his words.
—And he had to make meaning of it. the boy was frustrated.
—When boys feel pumped up with potential, but the world frustrated, they experience apocalyptic moments. Fantasies of radical acts.
—Have you ever wanted to kidnap people or shoot people or blow something up?
—Yes, but not in a terrorist way. And Thomas didn’t either. But our radical fantasies can be triggered by tragedy, and sometimes we grasp a narrative in order to both justify our acts and feel we’re part of a grand scheme.
—Thomas did like to draw crosses, but he wasn’t real religious. He wasn’t Muslim.
—See, another reason why this book is important. Terrorism can’t just be solved by military action, and it isn’t happening because a bunch of people are becoming Muslim. Christians can commit terrorism. Shoot. Even Buddhists can go violent. Eggers is making a valid sociological point about radicalization. Thomas and Don have a lot in common with young people who join ISIS. They want to feel important, and feel society is wrong. Many of them have just the inner turmoil that makes them vulnerable to that kind of brainwashing. Someone tells you that you can make the world and end it.
—Thomas was so troubled.
—And so, like many others who act alone, Thomas radicalizes himself. His narrative isn’t necessarily religious, or patriotic. It’s social. In his apocalyptic vision, if he confronts just the right people, he can remake his world. His apocalypse is mostly internal, because he’s not given a narrative like many radical groups telling him how to fix the world. Rather, he’s searching for that narrative. To understand Thomas is to understand a lot of people who commit atrocities. It doesn’t mean that all ISIS members are mentally disturbed any more than all Nazis are, but that ISIS is not made up of insane people, but people who feel the world they were promised is not there, and they want the power to do something about it. We want to be made to feel we can will anything to happen. We want unity and a sense of purpose. A “freedom fighter” group provides this psychological need.
—You’re not going to join ISIS, are you?
—No. And you’re not my mother. Don’t worry about me. I’m also very happy, albeit frustrated with the world. I have a narrative, and it’s radical, but does not involve inflicting harm on others. In fact, what’s radical about it is that it’s centered on love. You know where I’m going with this.
—Well you’re a Christian. That’s nice.
—The worst thing you can tell me is that it’s just “nice.” Maybe I need to be more radical. Anyway, you probably need some rest. I’ll go talk to the girl now about cannons and the wild West and stuff.