On the Radicalization of Youth – Written Before the Ottawa Events

benchDr David Laing Dawson

Why on earth would a young man, for even an hour of madness at four A.M., come to the conclusion that the way of ISIL/ISIS/IS is better than living peacefully in a liberal and secular Canadian democracy, no matter his ethnic and religious background?

When confronted by inexplicable outrageous behavior both writers and psychiatrists search within themselves for minor echoes, for nascent experiences that might shed at least a little light on the conundrum.

I hated medical school, at least until I discovered or developed some skill and competence. During that first year the faculty took us on a retreat, which meant sitting in small groups to air our grievances, and share our hopes. The question was asked of our group, “What had we given up to enter Medical School”. I don’t remember in detail what I said when my turn came, but I do remember being surprised by the extent of my anger and my grief. I was 23 at the time. Three of us were sharing a two-bedroom apartment. We lived on Kraft dinners at nine cents per serving, and augmented this on weekends with something we found in the grocery store labeled, enigmatically, “neck bones”. But what we had really given up was childhood: the sports, the comradery, the bands, the jam sessions, the Sundays at the beach, the parties, the security, flirtations, seductions – the endless summers.

Though always a small particle of courage away from dropping out and pursuing an alternative dream (which for me would have been notebook and canvas and a one-way ticket to Paris), I channeled my anger into making sure I got a passing grade.

Young men. Still angry at the end of childhood. Craving a life of significance with insignificance beckoning. Craving some security no longer provided by a family home, and only available through grinding work. Craving some certainty not provided by a liberal education, a multicultural society, and a profoundly complicated set of laws and rules to live by. Saddled with a set of aggressive and competitive instincts, no longer having an outlet on the soccer field. Craving a father, an elder, who will show us the way. Craving a good woman without all the trouble of seeking and impressing one. Craving some control over our lives, our future.

Most of us get through this, find our communities, discover love and the small pleasures, come to terms with being, more or less, insignificant within a vast mysterious universe, take pleasure and pride in working, in creating, in helping, and occasionally going on vacation.

But think what IS has to offer: a life of absolute certainty, a promise of profound significance, a very simple set of rules to live by and die by, no ambiguities, all the big questions answered with certainty, brotherhood, a father, adoring women, sex slaves, eternal life, and, people you can righteously kill.

The last phrase may be the most significant. The propaganda of IS taps into the rage and the primitive instincts of the young man on the sidelines facing a life of insignificance.

3 thoughts on “On the Radicalization of Youth – Written Before the Ottawa Events

  1. The shooter had a history of mental illness. He was probably not mentally well when he accepted the propaganda of evil and therefore likely acted on delusions.

    With respect, there is no need to dip into Freud to explain his behavior with “. . .IS taps into the rage and primitive instincts of the young man on the sidelines facing a life of insignificance”.(Do you really believe this?)


    1. This is from David Dawson

      Dear June,
      I am sure a few, or many, or perhaps most of the young men who are radicalized and become violent Jihadists have a definable mental illness, and that it is this illness that renders them vulnerable to IS propaganda. It does provide them with a ready-made delusion and a promise of significance, a place to direct their anger, and life after death as a celebrated martyr.

      But there are three reasons I did not take my recent blog on this subject in this direction. The first is that we had just experienced such an event and were in the midst of another, with real perpetrators, and, as a psychiatrist, I cannot ethically diagnose someone I have not examined. This is as it should be. I can say I would not vote for either Ford brother, but I cannot publicly profile them.

      The second reason is that if we use the words illness and disease, (the concepts of illness and disease) too broadly and loosely, we give the anti-psychiatry folks ammunition, the deniers of all mental illness. Are all Jihadists mentally ill? It would be a good question to throw at the Oxford debating society.

      And the third reason is that if we immediately and carelessly label all awful aberrant human behavior as “ill”, or “sick”, or “mentally ill”, the term becomes a synonym for evil and we do a disservice to those who suffer from and seek treatment for mental illness, and to their families.


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