Over the last year, we have come to know a good deal about Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. You'll remember that he is the young Nigerian passenger who last Christmas attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, known now to the world as "The Underpants Bomber." Luckily, he was an amateur. The only one he hurt was himself.
The more we learned about him, the odder it seemed that he should have become a terrorist. This fresh-faced twenty-three-year old enjoyed a privileged upbringing. His father, a wealthy banker and former Nigerian economics minister, made sure his son had the best of everything.
His was "a gilded life," according to the Independent, which included the best schools and expensive homes. "With his wealth, privilege, and education," the newspaper declared, he "had the world at his feet—able to choose from a range of futures to make his mark on the world."
Yet the son went off to sojourn with Yemeni jihadis, and the father was so worried about him that he asked U.S. officials not to renew his visa. "My family system, our village system, broke down," the father explained.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that one-note charlie of globalism, complained soon after that there weren't enough such fathers in Muslim societies: "Unless more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders—the village—are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing . . . this behavior will not stop."
Friedman didn't bother to ask why the son of such a man might have given himself over to radical Islam; much less did he bother to ask himself what the present state of this hypothetical "village" might be. He avoided more or less entirely the central question: Why would a privileged youth feel drawn to immerse himself in so deadly a cause?
We used to have a handy answer to that question. We used to call such young people "alienated youth."
Between the end of World War II and the 1970s, it was a truism that affluence bred alienation as the institutions of modernity replaced more traditional social relationships. Alienation, in turn, was presumed to generate either apathy, on the one hand, or rage against the machine, on the other.
This same explanation holds merit for our understanding of young Mr. Mutallab. The reason why "Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders—the village," as Friedman puts it, are unable to direct the lives of some of their young people is because the very processes of economic and technological change that Friedman and others never tire of promoting systematically undermine the power of those traditional forms of authority.
Alienated from traditional authority, privileged young people are apt to harbor contempt for the village. Their basic identities dissolved away in the transition to affluence, young people like Mr. Mutallab predictably gravitate toward extremists who promise a restoration of what presumably has been lost.
Such lost souls are the flotsam and jetsam of fundamental social change, and one never knows exactly where they will end up. But undoubtedly for some, suicide for a cause is an appealing alternative to a life shorn of meaning.
Alienation Arrives in America
For those of us who study the intellectual and cultural history of the post-World War II West, it is strange that the concept of alienation seems to have evaporated. It was the paradigmatic explanation for social behavior in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950s, alienation explained the timidity of white-collar workers and the conformity of suburbanites. It explained the eruption of juvenile delinquency in middle-class communities. It accounted for high divorce rates and the heavy use of alcohol and barbiturates among the professional classes.
Both the decline in voter participation and the political irrationality of the Red Scare were chalked up to alienation. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan deployed the concept to give voice to the vague but powerful "problem with no name."