What motivates men like Faisal Shahzad?

NEW YORK - MAY 04:  Police and media gather in...

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife

It is time to ask the question, “Why?”

Why would Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old, graduate-school-educated American citizen, a husband and father from a “good family,” want to murder strangers in the middle of Manhattan?  Why was he willing to risk his freedom and family to commit a heinous crime?

It is the hardest part of this near-miss train of events to understand. It’s also  the most important.  I have a few thoughts. But let me instead provoke you to think. What if …

What if the United States were a poor country, deeply rooted in rather rigid Christian beliefs. What if a major Muslim nation, Iran if you’d like, grew aggressive, sending troops into Mexico along our border and, say, Cuba, not far from it. And what if periodically it sent unmanned planes, drones, into Texas to hunt and kill rebels opposed to its Mexican government, in the process regularly killing American civilians by accident. How would you feel?

As it waged this war, what if Iran regularly announced it had nothing against America’s Christians or the American people as long as they stayed out of the fight and accepted the corrupt Mexican leaders Iran had helped install.  Would that make you feel better?

Getting the picture?

Here is what The New York Times writes in an article that suggests Shahzad may have had links to the Pakistan Taliban.

There is no doubt among intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by C.I.A. drones over the past year has made Pakistan’s Taliban, which goes by the name Tehrik-i-Taliban, increasingly determined to seek revenge by finding any way possible to strike at the United States.

Let me be clear:  No provocation, no scenario justifies terrorism.  It is despicable. But that’s not the point.

My point  is that American troops have been waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade now. They have inadvertently killed many thousands of civilians, each of these deaths scarring a family, a village, multiple minds.

“Why do they hate us?” was a question millions of Americans asked after 9/11. The reasons, certainly complex, seem much easier to decipher today. Action breeds reaction, which breeds escalation, on both sides. We are the world’s mightiest country with the mightiest weapons. To an anti-American Pakistani, drones delivering a payload over the wrong target, a civilian target, may be just as despicable as a car bomb on a New York City street is to us.

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Some Americans, perhaps even a majority, may believe fervently that we are fighting for democracy or protecting American interests, including the safety of our streets. But it does not take much imagination to realize that a counter-argument also can be made.  It is an open question whether these wars, rather than preventing terrorism on our streets, may increase the odds of it.  It’s an open question whether these wars, rather than feeding democracy, are fueling terrorism. Certainly to many in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, it is we who are the aggressors, we who are the haters.

Politicans of both American political parties can and should ask how Shahzad got on a plane when his name was on a “No Fly” list. They can ask, if they’d like, the unanswerable questions such as why no one had noticed him before. They can poke holes in an investigation that, to me was nothing short of miraculous in its ability to identify and arrest a suspect in a mere 53 hours.

In the end, though, there is this bigger question: Why?  Because ultimately, terrorism can’t be prevented with guns or bombs or might.  Instead, the fear it elicits leads to more guns and bombs and might even as it erodes the civil liberties and sense of sense of community that probably are the best defense against it.

This seems clear: the United States can’t indefinitely seal its borders or its cities from hostile foes while at the same time waging war on their soil, no matter how far away.  When people feel attacked and threatened,  they tend to strike back.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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18 Responses to What motivates men like Faisal Shahzad?

  1. leonkelly says:

    Jerry, I agree with all you points. I would add one thought to the discussion. Islamic radicals have been butchering innocent civilians in the name of their God for centuries. A radicalized element of Muslims express their religious fervor by killing innocents on every continent, and have been doing it for a very long time. It is in the history books. Hell, they murder each other in the name of their God.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I’ve no doubt this is true, though I think some of the same might be said of the knights of the crusades. I was in France two years ago and visited the castles of a group called the Cathars, a breakaway religion slaughtered by the armies of the church.

      • leonkelly says:

        We are in the here and now. Lame argument. An ancient wrong and a modern wrong are still 2 wrongs.

  2. paulmartin says:

    I’m sure that the bombings/drone attacks and such were reasons for him to do this, but I’m starting to wonder if his motivation wasn’t something else. Like you said, he had the education, decent job, family and other trappings of the ‘American Dream’. Shoot, maybe he even had a dog named Duke and a subscription to Time and Better Homes & Gardens…

    That’s all good and well, but it also probably describes the lives of half of the people on anti-depressants. Compared to the probable hero status he could have among many in his former country, he would never really stand out here. Granted he would forever be on the run and would have to accept the risk that the drone fired missile coming up the tailpipe of any car he would be in just might be at a time when his family is with him, but apparently that possibility/eventuality didn’t phase him.

    Maybe (now I’m really reaching) the training camp(s) he attended were more like a terrorist version of a motivational lecture series instead of, I don’t know, ‘Essential Terrorism Skills 101’. I would think that in a region where homemade bombs tend to work, if he had actually received any real instruction in that area, the ‘concoction’ in his car would have worked.

    He made mistakes covering his trail that 15 year old car thieves no better than to make, he left piles of personal information at his abandoned home, and I bet he would have gotten in front of a camera the moment he set foot back in Pakistan claiming responsibility. That sounds like someone that wanted to be known quickly, just not before he got out of the country.

    Finally, look at how many pre-boom videos of bombers show up where they talk about the glory of the after-life and the praise (and money) that will be heaped upon their surviving family members. Maybe this guy wanted all that glory and praise, but was smart enough to want it now and not desperate enough to go for the after-life route. He had a post-grad degree after-all, so it’s a fair assumption that he used his brain at least once in this whole plan of his right?

  3. boyfromthebuck says:

    Your point is near valid. You claim that Shahzad’s motive for killing civilians in Manhattan spurs from our military presence in his homeland. How do you justify the 9/11 attacks then? There was no war before that.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      That one is much harder as I point out in the piece. Keep in mind that the Islamists detest the west and western morality. And even before 9/11 we had bases and oil companies in and around their countries. I suspect that presence had something to do with it, as crazy and diabolical an action as the World Trade Center attack was. I tend to be anti-war, but supported the immediate attempt to destroy Al-Qaeda and capture bin Laden. My question now is this: Would we accomplish more today by getting out of the region rather than by staying in it? How long do we prolong these wars? And when do we consider them over? The fact of the matter is that we can never “defeat” terrorism. We just may be exacerbating it.

      • boyfromthebuck says:

        those are good points as well. I just am a bit confused by the fact that you pointed out how we have killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet didn’t say what is going on in Pakistan. I don’t really think that Pakistan gives a damn about what happens to Iraqis or Afghanis…that is apparent. For him to go and kill random people to avenge what has happened to Iraqis and Afghanis doesn’t make sense to me, but seems to be what you are arguing.

      • Jerry Lanson says:

        Actually the quote from The Times did address Pakistan. We’ve sent drones into Pakistan to root out Taliban there. As is inevitable in war, civilians have been killed along with enemy fighters.

      • boyfromthebuck says:

        I stand corrected.

  4. jake brodsky says:

    You can’t placate everyone. Was Waco ever so awful that we “deserved” Tim McVeigh’s actions? What did Japan do to “deserve” Aum Shinrikyo’s Sarin attack? Could we have avoided offending Al Quaida by not going to battle against Iraq in the first Gulf War?

    These are what-ifs.

    The fact is that religious cults have been fomenting violence around the Middle East. They all know they’re sitting on valuable ground. Add the revenues from oil and you have an unstable, ungovernable situation that isn’t sustainable.

    I don’t know what we could have done differently. The vicious cycles of brutality and ugliness has been in the Middle East since before we began recording history. You see it in places such as Armageddon (Megiddo). This conflict goes back to unknown warriors in the stone age.

    If you truly think that we could have done things differently so that someone wouldn’t have taken offense at our very existence, then I think you’re chasing shadows. Someone would have been upset somewhere. This is the Middle East we’re talking about.

    Until modern medicine comes up with a drug that makes these cult followers question their leaders, this hate will continue. Whatever reasons you may find, someone else will be on the other side and they’ll be just as offended.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      It’s one thing to rationalize, another to attempt to understand. I’m not rationalizing his actions. They are, as I said, despicable. I am trying to understand them. If we are going to insist on fighting prolonged wars, and we are whether I like it or not, we need to make some effort to understand the people we’re fighting against rather than simply dismiss them all as crazy.

  5. Todd Essig says:

    I imagine the responses to your courageous post will take off into some pretty interesting directions, already has I think. Hard to hit the nuanced center and I think you mostly did. Only place I would want to add anything is when you say “To an anti-American Pakistani, drones delivering a payload over the wrong target, a civilian target, may be just as despicable as a car bomb on a New York City street is to us”

    That might be true of any Pakistani, not just those already anti-American … heck, might even be true of some Americans!

  6. leonkelly says:

    Todd and Jerry… Get a room at the Pinko Motel!

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Hurling insults seems a little over the top, Leon. It’s not a matter of justifying terrorism. It’s unjustifiable. It IS a matter of understanding it. Unless you come from the “bomb ’em back to the stone ages” school of military strategy, and I don’t believe you do, then we need to make sense of the people we’re fighting. (George Packer of the New Yorker initially supported the Iraq War but still wrote a great book dissecting what went wrong.) Todd’s point, as I take it, is this: Even if a Pakistani were not anti-American and a drone missed a target and wiped out some neighbors, he still might see that drone about the same way we’d see a car bomber. You may disagree with that. But it would be great to engage in dialogue instead of name calling.

  7. libtree09 says:

    Your explanation is as valid as many others but cannot be taken as the truth; only Faisal Shahzad himself can give us his reasoning and even then it is possible that his explanation can be clouded by his damaged personal life.

    We do know, because he told us, that Osama bin Ladin, was upset that American troops from the first Gulf War were still stationed in Saudi Arabia. We also know that much of the terrorism in Iraq is based in ancient conflicts over Islamic interpretation and we are interfering with the realigning of their society.

    The Bush notion of “hating us for our freedom” is lacking in logic because it implies some envy. In Afghanistan the locals have no idea of our freedom, they in fact were steeped in their own culture and religion, it is unlikely they sat around debating our freedom. However they did care about invaders bringing a foreign culture. Their history of fighting these strangers reads like a who’s who of empires. They have fought the British, Russians, Germans and even Alexander the Great and between the big invasions the tribes fought each other.

    Now it’s our turn and as hard as it to view ourselves as an empire it is what we have become and it is how many in the world view us.

    It is not however the nineteenth or twentieth century. the times have changed and the biggest change is planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention cell phones. The world is a small place and this empire can not hide behind an ocean any longer. T

    Our empire is vulnerable.

    We can blame terrorism on religion and argue forever over which group is more ruthless or murderous. We, the Judea/Christian nation can claim sanity and civilization but history will prove otherwise. Christian Germans slaughtered Jews and Christian Russians. Christian Americans and Europeans slaughtered Christian Germans. Americans managed to slaughter Buddhist soldiers and nuked quite a few innocent women and children. In history Christians came to New Lands and destroyed entire civilizations.

    So any comparison of religious slaughter is pointless. Yet slaughter can still be on the menu. Today an American warrior can sit at a computer screen and send a missile into village home of some goat herder or tribal leader thousands of miles away. Perhaps those in the house were planning an attack but the attacker, the American, gets up from his screen, washes his hands and has lunch at the Burger King down the street and talks about the Lakers game with his fellow warriors.

    Those who decide to fight against such power are desperate, frustrated and angry and resort to terrorism and bombs. Uncivilized and ungodly as it is because it hurts the innocent it is the same tactic used by Native Americans against invading Americans: Jews and the Irish against the British and Arabs against the Turks and Germans. All of these incidents were wars against Empire.

    We live in a time of American Empire and that Empire survives and thrives with trading partners buying our goods around the world. We need to protect the flow of oil that fuels our economy. The Empire defends our trading partners and any foes to the capitalistic system that is our life blood. Thus we have built a system that sees justification in the interference in the government of other sovereign nations to protect the interests of the empire. Often those interests have conflicted with populace of offending countries resulting in civil wars. In the name of empire we have assassinated and supported brutal dictators and even death squads and worse started wars that killed Americans.

    We see ourselves, as the Puritans put it, “A Model of Christian Charity”, a shining city on the hill that is bringing democracy to the world without looking back at how difficult it was for us to create that democracy, how many injustices had to be overcome to perfect what at its best is still a flawed system.

    So here we are with bases and influence all over the globe and like the Romans are learning the downside of global dominance. Those under our influence tend to be resentful, often with good reason, they come to understand that the Empire puts its needs first.

    So we are going to have to learn to live with terrorism like many other countries in this world. We have to learn that others don’t view us as exceptional as we see ourselves. To come to grips with this smaller world we as a nation and empire need some serious and truthful self-examination if we are to survive this new and dangerous century.

  8. mozza says:

    I understand your reasoning behind your argument but I think it does fall short. In Iraq the Sunnis and the Shiites slaughter each other weekly and have well done so before any oil was pulled from beneath their land or Americans parked on their land to keep order.

    Speaking of oil, we have many commercial allies in Saudi Arabia; several of the Saudi business men own parts of our financial institutions and obviously benefit hugely from the agreements to produce and export oil. These same Saudi business men allow the U.S. to be there in order to secure its (America’s) oil interests. If bin Laden et al. were *that* upset about us being on their land, al-Qeda would certainly wish to take down those considered traitors to their holy land rather than spending the better part of a decade trying and then succeeding in bringing down financial buildings in New York, for example.

    Thomas Friedman had a interesting point in that many Middle East Muslims are taught from early on that they and their ideology are superior to non-Muslims. Now take into account that many of these Muslims live in some of the poorest and most politically corrupt countries in the world. Meanwhile the infidels, Americans and Israelis specifically, seem to be prospering and advancing their military, science and technology. Friedman draws the conclusion that there is an huge identity crisis in the Muslim world and although they are upset American troops are on ‘their’ holy land, the greater problem has to do with complete social disenfranchisement on a global scale. It is now palpable that Western culture, while despised by Middle Eastern, North African and Pakastani Muslims has advanced to the point where we live with the security of medical breakthroughs and secure technology which grants us the social stability they’ve never known.

    I also think that people who term Islam as a religion are missing a greater point: Islam is an ideology which encompasses politics, religion and social aspects of Muslim life. To break out just the religious aspect does a disservice to people trying to understand why the attacks in Israel, the UK and the US continue.

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