Bombings, Shootings: What Radicalizes Young People?

The last few months have been marked by three events that stand out vividly in my mind.

1. The Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass shooting.
2. The Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting.
3. The Boston Marathon Bombing.

Each of these three incidents have been remarkably similar in nature. Each of them were:

1. Perpetrated by young middle-class men.
2. Each involved mental radicalization eventually driving young men to perform acts of violence.
3. The victims were random (suggesting the action was to prove a point, not to kill a target).

With these patterns identified we have to ask ourselves what’s going on and why are young men radicalizing. Why are they so dissatisfied with current affairs that they are driven to acts of violence and terrorism? What clicked in their mind that they felt justified in harming innocent people?


They cop-out is to say that these people are just insane. They are crazy and that’s why they did it. End of case. But I don’t think that’s a fair analysis.

Even the media paints a portrait of insanity. We constantly hear key words like: “insane”, “mental health problems”, and “history of mental health”, but by all accounts these young men were not insane at all.

I recall interviews with families and friends after each event. What did people have to say about each of these guys? They were normal!

1. Friends and family of Aurora, Colorado shooter (James Holmes) as a normal guy: here and here
2. Friends and family of Sandy Hook shooter (Adam Lanza) as a normal guy: here
3. Boston Marathon bomber (Jahar, suspect # 2) described as a normal and popular guy: here and here

The way these events took place imply almost anything but insanity. Each of these events were carefully crafted and planned. This wasn’t the work of a person who suddenly lost their mind. Each of these events were the work of a methodical planner. A planner who performed these acts based on facts and emotion which did not dissipate. These were the acts of men who had come to terms with their ideology which allowed each perpetrator in question to justified their behavior and actions.

This was radicalization, not insanity.


To understand and prevent future acts of violence like these perhaps we should stop sweeping the truth under the rug. Perhaps we should stop labeling these young men as “crazy” and try to understand their motive. Try to understand why others might do the same thing.

Are the dissatisfied with the current state of affairs? Why? Have they been radicalized by extremist books, literature, or other media? Why did they listen to it? Why did they find themselves agreeing with extremist viewpoints? Is this blow-back or something else?

Mental Health, Media, and Other Factors

There are many factors that come in to play when talking about a person willing to take the lives of a group of innocent people. They have to fit a certain mental profile. They must be dissatisfied with life to a point that calls them to action. They must have gotten these ideas from somewhere, it seems.

The Media

Something a lot of people aren’t talking about is the media’s role in all this. Is it possible that the media’s constant highlighting of radical actions inadvertently promote such behavior? By desensitizing young people to such events that it makes committing such an act seem more possible? Is the media making radicalization sexy? I think there is some truth to this idea.

Society and Mental Health

We also need to carefully monitor what societal and mental factors prompt a young person to take actions like this. How do they build the courage to take a life(s)? Is this some combination of desensitization of murder, unhappiness with life, and mental predisposition? I don’t know the answer.

The one think I do know is that everyone should be asking themselves a lot of questions. What are we doing wrong? Why are people doing this? What factors drives a young person to such measures?

I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to blame anyone. The perpetrators are the guilty. What I’m trying to say is that it is too easy to just call them crazy and forget about it. To truly fix the problem we need to find the root cause. We need to examine what makes ordinary and even upstanding young men (by accounts of friends and family) turn to violence and radicalization. If we can figure this out – we can solve the problem.


2 thoughts on “Bombings, Shootings: What Radicalizes Young People?

  1. Jon

    As you say, there’s no excusing the perpetrators of these kinds of things. But at the same time, the media seems to rigorously avoid any examination of political motives, except perhaps in a caricatured way.

    1. Atticus

      Yep. It’s not that I think we should make excuses for these people’s actions – I just think it would be helpful to “understand the enemy” and counteract radicalization in the first place.


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