In her book, Dr. LoCicero argues that the exploitation, by opportunistic zealots, of children and young adults—whether from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Tunisia, or her own hometown of Cambridge, MA—can be stopped. After years of research into youth violence and martyrdom, Dr. LoCicero explains that communities have the power to better understand and successfully thwart recruitment efforts. With the upcoming trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnev, there has never been a better moment to explore how we can work toward helping impressionable youth from becoming pawns in battles they do not fully understand.
Below is the first part of a Q & A with Dr. LoCicero. The second part will appear tomorrow.
Why did you write your new book?
As one of the world’s top experts in children who are recruited to terrorist groups, I was sad, though not surprised, in 2013 at the first instance of so-called “homegrown terrorism,” something I had predicted in my first book on child terrorists, published in 2008. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Boston, and the accused perpetrators were from my own town of Cambridge, Massachusetts. My neighbors, stunned that such a thing could happen here, were asking how and why it did. All this compelled me to research and write specifically about this instance of youthful terrorism, as an example of how this can happen and what we can do to prevent it in the future.
Didn’t Cambridge do everything it could to support these brothers?
Cambridge did everything that any city could have been expected to do at the time the Tsarnaev brothers were growing up. But we all—inside and outside Cambridge—have to begin to do more than we did in the past. Now that we are more aware of the fact that many American youth, at a vulnerable time in their lives, are making choices that are consequential for themselves and others, often without consulting with the caring and engaged adults who could actually help them make the best choice possible, we have to find ways to make such consulting easier and more accessible. For example, adults who care about kids have to feel comfortable, and be rational, in discussing gangs, violence, and terrorism, and how kids may be seduced, misled, and recruited to act in ways that are against their own best interest, as well as the best interest of the people they love. Kids have to be helped to understand, I think, what it means to have multiple loyalties, and how they can best help others they care about.
Aren’t these sorts of kids bad, crazy, deranged, suicidal, etc.?
Each person who engages in violence has, of course, their own life history, and if we look hard enough, we will find some problems, some traumas, some personal challenges, and some losses. All this is important, but by itself is not sufficient to explain why young people like the Tsarnaevs resort to horrible acts of violence against innocent people. We must look harder at the context, culture, and, especially at the deliberate and ruthless methods of recruiters who would use them for their own gain, and who care not at all about the young people’s welfare. The recruiters are willing to talk young people into sacrificing their lives or at least their ability to have a productive life. They appeal to the inherent idealism of youth, and somehow convince them that the best thing they can do for people they care about is to kill other, innocent people, in order to make a statement. The young people who are recruited are, in a very counterintuitive sense, more likely to think of their action as altruistic, rather than as evil. But in their calculations, they fail to consider how much they could do if they survive, are educated, and act in non-violent manner to support others. This is the sort of thing that adults must be able to help with, in a calm and thoughtful manner. That is not, by the way, as easy as it sounds. We adults in the community will have to work hard to prepare ourselves.
What risks will people face if they try to discourage recruitment?
The greatest risk people face when they show an interest in terrorism in the US is that they will be misunderstood. Their neighbors, friends, coworkers, family members, and most worrisome, the law enforcement authorities, may think that they are too interested in terrorism, and may begin to look at them with some vague suspicion. They may be subject to increased scrutiny by security agencies. This is why I suggest that these efforts be undertaken as part of a larger group, and that officials and law enforcement be made aware that caring adults in the community are studying and creating ways to talk and listen to kids, and what their intentions are. I do not think law enforcement automatically has the wisdom or tools to intervene, though they have an important role. In Norway, interventions started with law enforcement and are now expanding to include members of the community at large. I think ordinary, caring adults who engage with children every day are in the best position to help.
This is a longer post than usual, so bear with me.
In January of 1903 13-year-old Bruce Frederick Cummings, a boy living in southwest England, began his diary by writing, “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend Their Time.'” The entry reflects an ambitious, eccentric mind with an innocence typical of precocious children. It’s also the beginning of what might well be one of the best diaries in English since Pepys: The Journal of a Disappointed Man. Young Cummings may not have written about how cats spend their time, but he’s happily telling us how he spends his: walks in the country, shooting at birds with slingshots, bike riding with friends. Like any bright teen with an expanding vocabulary he’s trying out new words (“the grasshoppers are beginning to stridulate”) and branching out in his reading (“Am reading The Origin of Species… I understand it so far…”). He wants to be a naturalist, and it’s when he’s expressing his love of nature that you realize young Cummings is going to be a really good writer one day: “I have used the term ‘Study of Nature’ but it cannot be called a study. It is a pastime of sheer delight, with naught but beautiful dreams and lovely thoughts.”
In spite of his intelligence and enthusiasm, Cummings’ prospects for becoming a scientist are bleak. His parents have no money for higher education. He has to leave school at 16 to help support his family. But he refuses to give up on his dream. He works all day but studies science doggedly, as evidenced by entries such as, “Oct 1 Am studying Chemistry and attending classes at the Evening School. Am also teaching myself German. I wish I had a microscope.” He also makes every effort to meet professional scientists. Amidst all his entries about the endless round of study and work, his love of science glistens in such entries as “When I dissect a Lamprey and cast eyes on the branchial basket, such structures strike me as being as finished and exquisite as if they had just a moment before been tossed me fresh from the hands of the Creator.”
But there’s a dark undercurrent to all this energy and joy. He has his first heart attack when he’s only 20. His health is bad but his doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with him (he is now believed to have had multiple sclerosis). Some diary entries are saturated with despair (“with the uncertainty of life…all scientific labour for me seems futile”) others glimmer with humor that shows he still enjoys life (“I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down via sea jelly and worms and Fish…and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?”)
Then he has some very good luck. One of his scientific contacts nominates him to take an exam for a job in the Natural History Department of the British Museum. He aces the exam. You can feel how happy he is when he writes, “I’m in, in, in!!!!!!!!!” He settles into a life in London and a job he loves. He makes new friends. But illness won’t leave him alone. The diary entries are blotted with the language of sickness: “down with influenza,” “appalling dyspepsia,” “heart intermittent,” “specialist..found a dull spot on one of my lungs.”
He’s 23 and he has to face the reality that he may soon die.
But he continues to write about loving his work, publishing scientific papers, having spats with friends, and flirtations and dates with an unnamed woman. At one point he writes, “Am I in love? God knows–but I don’t suppose God cares.”
Most twenty-something men who were terminally ill would just sink into self-pity. But Cummings maintains a passionate interest in everything going on in the world. When news reaches London of the tragic end of Scott’s Antarctic expedition, he writes, “The news. . .gave me cold thrills. I could have wept…. What splendid people we humans are!”
His response to his impending death is simply to live as richly as he could. To pack a lifetime into youth, even as illness closes in around him. He proposes to his unnamed girlfriend (whom he’s begun to refer to as “E.–“). She says yes. And she knows he’s dying.
On the day he plans to buy the wedding ring he’s temporarily too weak to walk so he has to send someone else out for it. Ten days after his wedding he has a mild heart attack.
But to the last he remains determined not to let this disease that is destroying his body kill his mind or spirit. His writes his thoughts about the First World War, his enjoyment of Chopin, idle banter with friends. He learns E.– is pregnant. Ninth months later he writes, “Home again with my darling. She is the most wonderful darling woman. Our love is for always. The Baby is a monster.”
As his health worsens, he resorts to grim jokes. Jan. 20 1917: “Even as I sit and write, millions of bacteria are gnawing away my precious spinal cord, and if you put your ear to my back the sound of the gnawing I dare say could be heard.”
Amazingly, he can still rebound emotionally, still be amazed by the beauty of the world: “Last night, I pulled aside the window curtain of our front door…Just below the densely black projecting gable of the house I saw the crescent moon lying on her back in a bed of purple sky, and I saw our little white frosted garden path curving up towards the garden gate. It was a delicious coup d’œil,* and I shewed it to E——.”
In October of 1917 he writes, “I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have wept and enjoyed; struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.”
He died in 1919. But not before publishing his diary, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, under the pseudonym W. N. P. Barbellion (the initials stand for Wilhelm Nero Pilate).
If I could pick just one book as a treatment for depression or self-pity, it’s this one.
On July 23, 2004, five marines, two soldiers, and one airman became the most unlikely of antiwar activists. Young and gung-ho when they first signed up to defend their country, they were sent to fight a war that left them confused, enraged, and haunted. Once they returned home, they became determined to put their disillusionment to use. So that sultry summer evening, they mounted the stage of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall and announced the launch of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
War Is Not a Game tells the story of this new soldiers’ antiwar movement, showing why it was born, how it quickly grew, where it has struggled, and what it has already accomplished. Nan Levinson reveals the individuals behind the movement, painting an unforgettable portrait of these predominantly working-class veterans who became leaders of a national organization.
Written with sensitivity and humor, War Is Not a Game gives readers an uncensored, grunt’s-eye view of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while conveying the equally dramatic struggles that soldiers face upon returning home. Demanding to be seen neither simply as tragic victims nor as battlefront heroes, the Iraq Veterans Against the War have worked to shape the national conversation. This book celebrates their bravery, showing that sometimes the most vital battles take place on the home front.
Nan Levinson is a Somerville resident, writer, teacher, and journalist, who covers civil and human rights, culture, and technology. For this book, she spent seven years not quite embedded with military-related antiwar groups around the country. Her last book, Outspoken: Free Speech Stories, grew from her reporting as the U.S. correspondent for the international magazine, Index on Censorship, and she was twice named to the Heroes List of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression. She teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.
Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay: the poet was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She grew up in a home that valued books and learning: her mother Cora read Shakespeare and Milton to the Millay children. The family was very poor, but a wealthy patron of the arts who heard the teenage Millay recite some of her poetry offered to pay for her to attend Vassar. After Millay’s graduation in 1917, she moved to Greenwich Village and moved in a circle that included the critic Edmund Wilson and Floyd Dell, editor of the left-wing magazine The Masses. In 1923 she became the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur said Millay wrote “some of the best sonnets of the century.” Related SPL reading: The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and Nancy Mitford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey. The writer and artist was born in Chicago in 1925. Upon moving to New York after college he worked in the art department at Doubleday, where he illustrated books such as Dracula and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and where he worked after hours on his own drawings. His independent career was launched in the gallery of New York City’s Gotham Bookshop, which displayed his drawings, but he really hit the cultural map when he created the animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! His work has an aesthetic usually described as “Edwardian” and “macabre.” He wrote over 100 books, many of them wordless. He sometimes wrote under pseudonyms that were anagrams of his real name, such as Ogdred Weary. His designs for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula won a Tony Award. He also wrote and directed theatrical productions starring papier-mâché puppets he made himself. His 1958 book The Object Lesson has earned critical respect as a work of surrealism. Perhaps his most famous work is The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet book illustrated with drawings of children’s deaths. Another noteworthy book is The Curious Sofa, which Gorey subtitled, “A Pornographic Work” although it is utterly lacking in nudity or explicitness, where one can find the oft-quoted line, “Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan.” Gorey himself classified his work as “literary nonsense,” but his own approach to art is perhaps best summed up in his remark to a Boston Globe reporter: “Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.” Related reading from SPL: Gorey’s 1999 book, The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millenium and Amphigorey Also, a collection of selected drawings and verse.
Snow. Snow. And yet more snow. And we’re all tired of it. And record-breaking low temperatures tonight. It’s all too easy to let the weather get you down. But if it’s too cold to go out, go in: into a book. Reading is a great way to forget whatever is troubling you, whatever you’re tired of, whatever you wish would go away. So I and a couple of my colleagues at another library put together a list of titles we hope you’ll enjoy.
One of the great fictional detectives of our day is Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill, an African-American private eye who lives and works in Manhattan. His family alone would keep his hands full: his wife Katrina is continually unfaithful and he can barely keep track of all the illegal side businesses run by his precocious teenage son Twill. But as a p.i. he also does very dangerous work for wealthy, powerful people–making a lot of enemies in the process. I love all the McGill novels I’ve read, but I suggest you read them in order. The first three are The Long Fall, Known to Evil and When the Thrill is Gone. They are unputdownable.
Arlington reference librarian Jenny (who blogs about books and IT here) recommends Simon Rich’s hilariously absurd novel What in God’s Name. God (yes, that God) decides He’s going to destroy the Earth and devote Himself to His long-cherished dream of opening an Asian fusion restaurant. However two low-ranking angels who are reluctant to see Earth go the way of the mastodon strike a deal with the Diety: He’ll call off Armageddon if they can get the two most socially awkward humans in existence to fall in love each other. The New York Times Book Review called What in God’s Name a “satirical sandbox that plays with the Bible’s assertions.”
If you’re in the mood for nonfiction, Jenny is a fan of This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell’s tongue-in-cheek pop history of early New England, The Wordy Shipmates. I’ve read it as well and I agree it’s a fun book. The story of one of the most important episodes in American history is even more fascinating viewed through the quirky, nerdy lens of Vowell’s mind. She even manages to make theological disputes interesting. And if the idea of reading a book about the Puritans still puts you off, I’ll let Vowell herself sell you on her subject:
“I’m always disappointed when I see the word ‘Puritan’ tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to Hell. ”
Another Arlington librarian, Linda (head of reference, actually, and blogger about books and knitting at a website named after rodents) suggested Tana French’s The Likeness. Like Mosley’s, French’s mysteries have a recurring principal character: Dublin police detective Cassie Maddox. In Likeness, Cassie is pulled out of the domestic violence division to assist with a murder investigation. The reason: the victim, Lexie Madison, looked exactly like her. To find out who killed Lexie, Cassie is talked into impersonating her and taking up Lexie’s place in the home she shared with four eccentric and charismatic housemates. And even though one of the four may be a murderer, Cassie finds herself strangely drawn to them.
And finally, both Linda and Jenny recommend Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. This New York Times bestseller is the story of a couple, Clare and Henry, who first meet when she is 6 and he is 36. Henry suffers from “chrono-displacement disorder:” he travels through time at random. Their relationship doesn’t actually begin until they meet in the time Henry belongs in, when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. The strains and slippage of any long-term relationship are exacerbated by Henry’s frequent disappearances and reappearances. And he often reappears a different age than he was when he left. It’s quite an unusual love story, to say the least. Everyone I’ve known who has read this book has raved about it.
Happy Birthday, Sinclair Lewis. This author of devastating critiques of American life was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota in 1885. Recommended related readings from SPL: Babbitt, one of my favorite novels of 1920s America and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.
Reading the published diary of someone who died early can be a poignant experience. You can only speculate on what they might have become had they lived. Sometimes all you can think is, “The world lost this person too soon.”
Petr Ginz (1928-1944) was a child of extraordinary energy and gifts: between the ages of 8 and 14 he wrote five novels. He was also an accomplished painter (for a child) and a fluent speaker of Esperanto with an insatiable curiosity about science. Given his privileged background (his father was a Prague textile exporter) in normal times he would have a future of unlimited promise. But when he was 11 the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and under Nazi law he was classified as ein Mischling ersten Grades, a child of mixed Aryan and Jewish ancestry: one of the racial “undesirables.” In 1941 he began keeping a diary documenting life as a Jew under Nazi rule. His writing is hauntingly laconic, sometimes wry and detached, creating a narrative vacuum that the reader’s feelings and imagination automatically fill as they grasp the dark realities Ginz describes: “October 30 1941: In the morning at the Levituses. They have everything ready for the journey to Poland.” “In the morning I was with Eva [his sister] and Daddy in Maniny. It is now almost the only place where Jews can go for a walk.” At the same time the life and mind of a child often break through this catalogue of clipped details: he recounts feuds with schoolfriends (“I have organized a boycott of Popper”), gloats at getting good grades (“I had an oral test in geography and I got an A as pure as milk”), and makes cryptic references to behavior that could be the result of boyish rambunctiousness, a temper tantrum, or an outburst of despair: “In the evening I broke a lamp by throwing a pillow.” As the diary continues to its end, you can feel the deepening darkness as more and more people he knows are sent to concentration camps in entries such as “July 27 1942. Auntie has left.”
In October 1942 Ginz himself was sent to the Terezin camp. Being the boy he was, he continued pursuing his education and artistic pursuits. He had access to a library of confiscated books. He became an editor of the magazine started by camp residents and he wrote an Esperanto-Czech dictionary as well as another novel (lost).
In 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed.
In 2007 his sister Eva edited his diaries and some of his Terezin writings, which were published in English as The Dairy of Petr Ginz, 1941-1942. Ginz is also the subject of the 2012 documentary, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz. (Trailer below)
How about reading and discussing a book with people from all over the world?
Harvard’s Global Outreach Program hosts an online book group for educators. This year’s theme is “Crossing Borders in Time and Space.”
Their next book is Anthony Marra’s novel of life in war-torn Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. On Thursday Jan. 22, at 7pm, the author will discuss his book with Nieman Fellow Irina Gordienko, a journalist with years of experience covering the region. An interactive online discussion will follow. All that is required to participate is an Internet and the current version of Flash. Registration and more information is here.
Their next book discussion, scheduled for April 30, is on Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel of drug-war haunted Colombia, The Sound of Things Falling, which the New York Times called “a page-turner, but…also a deep meditation on fate and death.”
NPR has a great report on Armed Services Editions, the pocket-sized books that entertained and consoled soldiers during World War II. Here is the link to request a library copy of the new book on ASEs, When Books Went to War.
Have you ever wondered what was involved in making books before the rise of industrial-scale printing in the 1840s? You can watch someone make a book with a hand-operated printing press here.
Grown-ups who read YA books? You’re in good company. While adult book sales were down this year, guess what sales were up 22%?