Tag Archives: ISIS

Trump and the Kurds

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Western powers meddling in, invading, colonizing, any of the middle east Nations has seldom if ever resulted in something good. I must leave this as “seldom if ever” because the history of such meddling, colonization, invasion, corruption is too long and complicated to review. Even the fact there is no Kurdistan but rather populations of Kurds in three adjacent countries is the product of Western meddling, of arbitrary boundaries drawn up after European wars.

But then we arrive rather suddenly in the last months of 2019 and even though, albeit through much tragedy and failed foreign policies, we are at a point of relative peace and success (defeating ISIS), and an opportunity for Western powers, this time mostly the US, at a relatively small cost, to stay with just enough presence to prevent more war and genocide, to provide the Kurds with some defacto autonomy, to prevent Erdogan’s Turkey from exercising its genocidal impulses, to prevent a resurgence of ISIS…. and now, with a rare chance of doing great good with minimal cost the US cuts and runs.

Not the US actually, but Donald Trump. Supposedly after a little quid pro quo phone call with Erdogan.

Such an irony. The most foolish inept corrupt president the US has ever suffered is given an opportunity to have success, and to save lives, and preserve peace by simply doing nothing and he blows it. Over the next few weeks and months we can all watch how this unfolds, causing more suffering and more de stabilization of the region.

But why is this happening? Even Trump’s acolytes know it is a bad move and are speaking out.

I think we are hostage now to Donald Trump’s rather severe personality flaw. As bombastic and ruthless as he appears to be with ordinary mortals he lapses into a craven sycophant seeking approval whenever one on one with a man who holds true life and death power over his own tribe.

As the drums of impeachment beat louder he will seek and need this kind of approval more and more, from both chanting crowds and one on one from those he perceives as powerful men.

Moderate and Extreme Religions – An Easter Blog

By Dr David Laing Dawson cartoon

Today in the local paper I read a well written, thoughtful op-ed extolling inclusion, the multi-cultural tolerance of Canada, our peaceful acceptance of one and all. And this article, of course, was written as a bulwark against over reacting to the recent crimes in Brussels.

In the article the author referred to “extremists”, “extreme Islam”, and “radicalization.” – words that appear regularly in our papers and magazines and internet posts.

And I thought about them. The words themselves.

Extreme and extremist. Inherent in these words is the implication that there can be something that is “moderate”, or “in moderation”.

A moderate diet can become an extreme diet. Inherent in the concept of the moderate reduction of sugar in one’s diet, there exists the possibility of extreme reduction, elimination. Similarly inherent in the “reduction of calories” is the possibility of the elimination of calories. Which could be called a “radical” diet and would be suicidal.

I can make the same point with exercise and sports. We have moderate forms of both, and extreme forms. The extreme forms are a little crazy but harmful to no one but the participant.

There once was an extreme Christianity as harmful as extreme Islam, but not today as far as I know. Today extreme Christianity implies a gross excess of forbiddens. Thou art forbidden to dance, uncover thy hair, swear, drink, have transfusions, work on Sunday, use electricity, drive a motor car. It does get dangerous when it includes in its forbiddens, vaccination, medical treatment, planned parenthood and homosexuality. And like all closed systems, such rule-bound extreme collectives are vulnerable to takeover by a charismatic psychopath.

But the point I am making is that when we find an extreme form of something, extremist views and actions, radical views, the seeds of those ideas and actions can be found in the moderate form. They are already there.

There are violent, crazy, criminal ideas in the Old Testament of the Bible. There are violent, crazy, criminal ideas and directives in the Koran. These are the seeds of extremism that moderates ignore, re-interpret, and gloss over. But they remain available to form the foundation of thought and action for the dispossessed, the angry, the lost, and the sociopathic. And, to a horrifying degree, they inform the civil law of many Muslim countries.

It behooves all moderates of all faiths to look carefully at the seeds of extremism in their own holy books and teachings and remove them. Teach love and forgiveness, kindness and generosity. Tell fables that illustrate these lessons. Dump all the stupid stuff about retribution, apostates, infidels, purges and pogroms, stoning, beheading and an exclusive heaven. It would be a start.


The Adolescent Brain, The Bible and The Koran

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In our teenage years and often well beyond them, the adolescent brain struggles to form a map, a system of cause and effect, a number of certainties, a group of expectations, some rules and criteria that might guide it through this life, and sometimes beyond. A very healthy brain settles on a few absolutes, and leaves the rest quite flexible, able to adapt, change, and grow with new awareness and understanding.

But a very significant aspect to this journey involves the acceptance and/or rejection of the received wisdom of our parents and teachers. And in this process, in this process of the adolescent brain picking and choosing what to believe, invariably it (the adolescent brain) perceives the inconsistencies, oftentimes the hypocrisies to be found in our parents’ and our teachers’ instructions.

This leads to one of two reactions, sometimes both at the same time: one is to reject it all, the other to swallow it all, to become more of whatever it is, than our parents. And this may be a phase that ends in a healthy compromise and adaptation.

In its benign form the teen may shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself Christians when you only go to church at Easter and Christmas?” or “Is there any archaeological evidence this actually happened?”

Or it may lead to the teen and post-teen joining a commune, “going back to the church”, declaring himself atheist, finding solace in the Hare Krishna cult.

And today, as we know, it might lead a young man or young woman, raised in a “moderate” Muslim family, into the arms of ISIS. Perhaps these young people are especially vulnerable, unable to otherwise find their way, to fit in, to belong, to succeed.

But in the process of adopting a strict, conservative, oppressive, violent, rigid, immutable code they are also overcoming, reacting to, the perceived hypocrisies of their parents and teachers.

These teachers and parents are preaching from ancient texts, the Bible or the Koran. And they are choosing only the nice parts, all the while claiming that the whole book is the word of God. I’m not really sure how they do it. “We think of those as parables today.” “But the message is evil.” “Well we don’t really believe that part anymore.” “But you said the whole book is a holy book.” “Well yes but…..”

Let’s face it. Both the Bible and the Koran contain truly evil, ignorant passages, advice, instruction, and rules to live by. If we really believed all of what is in these ancient texts we would stop reading this now and gather some rocks to stone adulterers and apostates, to kill a few homosexuals, get our kitchen knives sharpened to cut off a hand or two, choose a small flexible branch to beat our wives; we might all make it our life’s work to spread the gospel and to fight the infidels, the unbelievers, and worse yet, the fallen believers.

But the point of what I am saying is this: When that moment comes in the adolescent brain in which her angst, his quest for certainty, their struggle to find a community, a set of rules to live by – when this is floundering – and when that young man or young woman sees the abundant hypocrisy, or at the very least, the paradox of claiming to be a true believer in a particular ancient text, but not really, not all of it, though it is the word of God…..well…there is the solution right there, spelled out in the early pages of that ancient text sitting on the bedside table. “It would be righteous to kill abortionists. An eye for an eye. The damnation of homosexuality. The closed door of heaven…….”

So, here is one thing we could do. Our churches and mosques could do. Tear out those pages. Stop teaching the whole book. Select the parts that time and enlightenment and education have proved valuable. Discard the misogynistic, racist, intolerant, violent passages.

Do this now. Please.

It is telling, I think, that the young women who left the very conservative Muslim school in Mississauga to join ISIS  felt that the teachings of this school were not sufficiently “conservative.” Well, in the eyes of most of us, what that school is teaching belongs in the 13th century.

But, they are using as their instruction book, their text, their Holy Book, the unadulterated Koran. And even though they were teaching those girls to behave as if living in the 13th century, they must have been skipping the more outrageous passages of the Koran – which is, to that adolescent brain, a tad hypocritical.

For humanities sake, let us rip out the stupid pages of both the Koran and the Bible. And, if you would like to test your knowledge of religion, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has this test you can take.

Primitive DNA in the Young Male Brain

Gus and WallyBy Dr David Laing Dawson

In the 1960’s we sat on the beach around a fire looking across the inlet to a few lights on the north shore, the moon rising in the east. The guitarists among us played freedom songs, folk songs, union songs, anti-war songs, love songs. We passed a joint or two around, drank cheap beer and wine, and sang.

We were confident, I think, that eventually the Americans would see the folly of the Vietnam War, there would not be a World War III, the iron curtain would collapse, and Russia would eventually find its way to the virtue of a mixed economy and full democracy. Universal health care was on its way. The women among us used birth control, looked forward to careers of their own.

We may have imagined having children at the time, though certainly not grandchildren. But had we imagined having grandchildren I think we would have imagined bequeathing them a world made up of mostly civilized countries gathering at the UN to discuss their mixed economies and their inclusive democracies. We could have guessed, I think, that they would also be discussing excess use of petroleum (or running out of it as some thought would surely come to pass), preserving the forests and wildlife, protecting endangered species, providing education for all, and eliminating poverty.

Fast forward to 2015 and a few countries, including Canada, do have universal health care. The Iron Curtain is gone. Despite Vlad’s wish to be Czar, Russia is getting there. We are certainly talking about petroleum, wildlife, forests and oceans. We continue to argue about the right mix in ‘mixed economies’. Not such high marks on education and poverty.

And then we have ISIS/ISIL and terrorism. Who would have guessed?

In Egypt the army is once again in control. A generational slippage, a step backwards, as often happens in the long, tedious, evolutionary road to an inclusive democracy and a better social contract.

But ISIS and terrorism. That’s not slippage, a step backwards, a pause, a stall. That is some unleashing of the remnants of very primitive DNA in the young male brain. Some instruction that may have served them well as they rode with Genghis Khan, or fought over a watering hole in the jungle, or reverted to cannibalism when other protein was scarce. Some thousands of years ago.

We have two boxer dogs. They can bark at perceived intruders, chase squirrels up trees, make birds take flight, but they are gentle, crave touching and play, and they are overly affectionate with friendly humans. Lovely dogs. But last summer an overweight ground hog, probably the patriarch of a brood in the nearby bushes, wandered onto our dogs’ territory looking for mulberries. The dogs moved quickly. Working as a team they cornered this hapless creature. And then they tore him apart.

Well, as a species our dogs are only a few hundred years from a time when this particular behaviour was required of them to eat, protect their families, and survive. So we have forgiven them. Besides, they don’t have language. It is impossible to teach them and explain to them that level of differentiation, consideration and nuance. And they did not invoke God and his ancient texts in the act of killing.

To be continued:

On Improving the Effectiveness of Foreign Aid

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Canada’s foreign aid spending totaled CAD$ 5.4 billion in 2013  compared to CAD$ 5.66 billion in 2011. This equates to about C$154 per Canadian. Aid spending was 1.9% of total 2013 budget expenditure.

This money is spread around dozens of countries all over the world. The list of receiving countries includes Russia, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. Undoubtedly each project is worthwhile and based on impeccable humanitarian principles.

We also know that many of these countries improve for a while (education, governance, medical care, nutrition, crime, infrastructure, services) and then collapse again. Sometimes the collapse has a natural cause (tsunami, drought, earthquake), but often the cause is corruption, sectarian strife, poor governance, undeveloped civil service and infrastructure, democratic failure, independently powerful armed forces, gross income disparity, over-population, refugees from neighbouring failing societies, continuing poverty, poor education.

Sometimes the money is wasted. A portion lines the pockets of criminals. Sometimes free money creates a climate of dependency and fosters corruption.

And each of these failed or failing countries is a potential target for exploitation and ultimate takeover by extremist groups, or psychopathic dictators: ISIS, Boko Haram being the current scourges.

It is understandable that some thoughtful, educated and outspoken citizens of these countries are now saying: “Do not give us money.” There is even some evidence that some countries not receiving aid have fared better than those that have received aid.

If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results” then our foreign aid policy is insane.

But what else can we do?

Here is an idea:

Canada (and each and every other developed nation) can chose one or two or three or four countries with which to work, and to help exclusively, and, in partnership with the leaders and people of that nation, provide aid (money, expertise, people, equipment) in a planned and evaluated fashion, to create, over time, a foundation of good democratic governance, universal education, universal health and medical care, a functioning police and court system, a self-sustaining economy, a solid infrastructure for commerce, sewage, clean water, goods, services, and information.

Each successful country – successful enough to be resilient to changes of government, extreme weather, the intrusions of corrupt corporations, would-be dictators, and natural disasters –  will be a bulwark against extremism,  terrorism, and a return to the medieval.

We would have to find a way to overcome fears of colonialism, to do this in an entirely altruistic fashion, and it would be a long-term project. We would not get quick returns (images of the maple leaf on bushels of wheat being handed out to starving people, mosquito nets over palette beds in village huts, happy children attending a school in one impoverished village in Nigeria).

But what we, and dozens of other developed countries are doing, is not working. Our band-aids cover up the bleeding but do little (some are saying they do, ultimately, more harm than good) to overcome the illness and create sustainable health.

Jihadi John and The Radicalization of Youth Part II

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

Recent events have brought about much hand wringing and soul searching. Six teenagers from Quebec fly to Turkey on route to Syria. Jihadi John is identified as a British Citizen who has been described as gentle and kind before radicalization. Someone hints that harassment by MI5 pushed him into adopting this murderous personae. Someone else suggests that these youths are “alienated” by their western societies, meaning England and Canada in these cases.

How can this happen? How can a young person transform or be transformed in a matter of weeks or months from a fun loving, music loving, facebooking, photo sharing, academically successful teenager into a Jihadi fanatic?

How much of this is our fault? How real are their grievances? Do these grievances explain anything?

Well, these are not adults making a decision about their life trajectories. They are adolescents. And in the evolving socialization and developing brain of every human adolescent there comes a moment (a moment that can last a few months or a year or two) when the pathways of teenage idealism and teenage opposition intersect. This can be a moment of creativity, a moment when a teenager sets off on a good path, determined to do better than her parents, maybe save the environment, stamp out racism, help the poor, invent the personal computer or a new form of music. But it can also be a dangerous and vulnerable moment. And a moment that can be exploited by an unscrupulous adult – a cult leader, a criminal gang, the propaganda of Madison Avenue or slick videos from ISIS.

Reflexive opposition to parents is a natural phase of individuation, of becoming separate, of developing independence. “She argues with me about everything,” a parent will say. Or, as my son-in-law said to me recently, regarding my 15 year old grandson, “He never listens to me; how come he listens to you?”

And then we have idealism. CBC has an annoying habit of interviewing 10 year olds about a progressive program in the school system. I watch these kids on TV, microphone before them, struggling to remember and then repeat the platitudes they have been fed by the adults in charge. All well and good. But there will come a time in their adolescence when these kids notice that the adults around them, especially their parents, don’t really live up to those platitudes. Not completely anyway. In the Christian home the teen will shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You only go to church on Easter Sunday.” “How can you eat meat when you know how badly these animals are treated?”

I don’t know first-hand the equivalent in a Moderate Moslem home but I am sure it happens.

Add some confusion, some anxiety about the future, to this teen who is now able to discern the wide gap between the platitudes, the instructions and admonitions and recipes for life spelled out in our holy books and the actual lives of her parents and other adults, perhaps living Moslem-lite, perhaps drinking some alcohol, perhaps not fasting religiously. This child will prove fertile ground for the propaganda of ISIS: Playing to the teenager’s natural opposition to her parents; playing to her idealism; promising to staunch the confusion, to alleviate the anxiety; offering a role, a defined role and purpose, a part in a bigger play. To say nothing of everlasting life, joy and fulfillment, and, for some, a righteous excuse to wreak havoc and revenge.

So parents, brothers and sisters, community and religious leaders, family doctors, teachers and counselors, be aware of this vulnerability in all teens. Monitor. Watch for the signs of undue influence by cult leaders, drug dealers, middle aged men in another city, and this new horror in our town: ISIS.

Editor’s Note – For Part I see Rat Brains, Youth, and Jihadists. Dr Dawson is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Adolescent Owner’s Manual. Library Journal said of his book “Dawson’s understated sense of humor translates well to text. While there are a plethora of books available on parenting teens, his to-the-pointness recommends this for busy readers.” For a video book trailer see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VCrKf1lV2o

Rat Brains, Youth, and Jihadists.

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

There is something wonderfully insightful about our parliamentary form of government. We have a queen. We could have a king. She lives in luxury surrounded by symbols of history and power. She, or her representative, is visible at all major ceremonies. Her representative delivers the throne speech. She can be honorary leader of our soldiers, open libraries, commission battleships. And she has absolutely no power. It is even considered bad form should she express an opinion on anything save motherhood and endangered species.

Because of this we can give some power to our prime minister. We limit his term in office. We can challenge him publicly. Because we have a Queen, we can think of our prime minister as just another self-serving politician. He is not us. He has no divine right. He may fall from grace without damaging either the institution of Parliament or our self-esteem. His office is far more important than the current occupier. And he occupies this office entirely at our whim. And because we have a Queen, we need not project unto our prime minister all those two million year-old impulses, fantasies, wishes and hungers that we might otherwise project unto our leader.

I was thinking of this, oddly, because of ISIS and the recent videos and pictures of all those young mislead men. They have bought the insanity and delusions of ancient documents and a charismatic psychopath.

Slick videos and a bearded all-powerful leader with a simple formula have tapped into a hunger deep within the rat brains of these young men. Brotherhood, purpose, an unleashing of all that masculine aggression – clearly the best first person shooter video game on the planet. The only other ingredient these young men need is a sense of immortality, invulnerability, which they might have until age 22 or so, and after that, well, a promise of life everlasting as a revered martyr.

I am sure it is too late to save them. That level of primitive tyranny will provoke competing tyrannies, unleash other hatreds, and ultimately, self-destruct.

But, back to our parliamentary democracy. How wonderful it is that for all but a few of us, we have managed to develop a form of governance that does not allow, would never allow, a single man with an ancient text under his arm to command our loyalty, our fealty, our love and our sacrifice. How creative and insightful we humans have been to create a system of governance that does not, will not, allow the blossoming of those primitive needs and impulses.

Editor’s Note – Dr Dawson is the author of The Adolescent Owner’s Manual where he discusses how a parent’s goal should be to get your adolescent child into adulthood, alive, healthy, preferably educated and skilled, without a major drug problem or criminal record or pregnancy. Anything more is icing and a pleasure to behold.

Criminals, Terrorists, and Delusions – The Differences

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the Canadian opposition, said that Michael Zehaf Bibeau, the Ottawa shooter, was a criminal, not a terrorist.

This somehow implies to me that being a criminal is even worse than being a terrorist, a “common criminal” rather than an ideologically driven terrorist.

But it does speak of our confusion with this language, and our use of the terms “mentally ill”, “terrorist”, “troubled”, and “criminal” to imply our sympathy, our disdain, or our disgust, rather than a finely tuned definition of each term.

This is the stuff of whole lecture series in the psychological and social sciences but these distinctions might help:

Delusions are explanations for that which is either unacceptable to us, or terrifyingly inexplicable.

The delusion that is the consequence of a mental illness is an explanation for a terrifyingly inexplicable experience.

It can be an explanation, an organization of information when the brain is otherwise impaired in its social information processing, (e.g. schizophrenia, brain injury, dementia), an explanation, or organization for an unusual feeling state, (e.g. mania and grandiose delusions), or an explanation/organization for an otherwise inexplicable sensory experience (e.g. hearing voices, crawling or touching sensations). Such delusions are usually autistic in nature. That is they do not conform to an accepted belief system. (They are not “I have come to believe in God”, but rather, “I am God’s messenger”, or, “I am God”). But they do tend to incorporate the technology and fads and fears of the day. (In 1960 a delusion might include being controlled by radar, or microwaves; today it is more likely having an implanted microchip, or of being pursued by terrorists). Such mental illness-derived delusions usually preclude someone from joining a group, participating in a joint venture, being, for example, part of a terrorist cell – but for a brief span of time, a mentally ill deluded person might find the tenets of Extreme Islam to be satisfying, captivating, and then act upon them.

But one can certainly arrive at this kind of belief and action from different pathways. One can be raised in it, otherwise uneducated, know nothing else but this belief system, and then be pushed to hatred and action by experience, the experience of hatred, loss, failure and grief. It is a delusion of sorts, but one shared by one’s teachers and comrades.

And some troubled young men may,  without the presence of a true mental illness-derived delusion,  find the tenets of Extreme Islam, the call to action, the promise of significance, the promise of reward and martyrdom, a very convenient solution to their failures, their narcissistic anger and disappointment.

The first hypothetical person, the mentally ill man, is not criminal. At least he will not be considered criminal under the law if it can be demonstrated in court that his delusion, his mental illness, prevented him from having the capacity to know right from wrong and appreciate the consequences of his actions. In the language of Canadian law, he might be found guilty of the act, but not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

The second hypothetical man has been raised within a strict educational and religious system, kept apart from the rest of the world, and been pushed to extremism by the intense propaganda of his teachers (both online and offline) and by his own experiences of loss, hatred, and tragedy that seem to prove them right.  He may join IS or a terrorist cell. He may be a true believer in Jihad. A bona fide terrorist.

The third hypothetical man? It would take a psychiatric assessment and a court of law to make a determination.  Are his troubles sufficient to warrant a diagnosis of mental illness? Was embracing Extreme Islam a convenient way of channeling his rage? Was he suicidal, or deluded about the outcome of his actions? Would a court of law determine that he had the capacity to know right from wrong and find him criminally responsible? Probably.



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.