A decade ago, we were assured that American Muslims presented no threat to national security because they were integrating successfully into American society. They enjoyed economic opportunities here that were lacking in the Middle East, or in Europe for that matter, and so felt none of the frustration that fueled Islamist radicalism and terrorism. This week we learned of an American, raised in Minnesota and a former resident of San Diego, who died fighting for "the Islamic State" (aka ISIS or ISIL) in Syria. Has something changed?
Reporters have noted that Douglas MacArthur McCain is the second person from his high school class to die in a jihad, a friend having fought and fallen for the al-Shabab group in Somalia a few years ago. McCain "reverted" to Islam -- some Muslims prefer this verb on the assumption that all people are born Muslim -- possibly under the influence of Somali immigrants in his community. For some, this will be an argument against immigration from Somalia or any Muslim country.
Before we draw conclusions about Muslims, however, let's remember that those assurances about economic opportunity securing social and cultural integration were made before the Recession of 2008. If the formula was valid in the first place, it follows that less economic opportunity means less opportunity for integration or assimilation. We need to know more about this man personally to explain why he chose jihad rather than crime or gangs, but we may want to consider that fewer opportunities increase the pool of people looking for fulfillment, meaning, power, self-respect, for whom jihad may be an option. If someone answers that it's each individual's personal responsibility to create opportunities for himself, rather than wait for the state to create opportunities for him, -- well, that's what McCain did, wasn't it?
Thomas Friedman wrote recently that more people in the world feel "un-free" despite trends of political liberalization around the world. He argues that achieving freedom from dictatorship isn't enough for people; following the latest author he's read, he distinguishes between "freedom from" and "freedom to" and says people need more of the latter. It looks like the old distinction between "negative" and "positive" liberty, but it also looks like only part of a larger picture. "Freedom to" includes free enterprise, at least in Friedman's enumeration, but it is one thing for law to permit it, another for opportunities actually to exist. Couldn't the reality be the reverse of what Friedman perceives? There might be plenty of "freedom to," on paper at least, but people really miss "freedom from," particularly two of the FDR-era Four Freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. In the competitive environment identified with "freedom to," these two freedoms often seem like distant if not unrealizable ideals. For some, the best path to achieving these ideals looks little like freedom to others. I read somewhere else recently that liberalism will always face opposing ideologies around the world. That has to be because liberalism (much less its American "conservative" variant) can't really guarantee freedom from want or fear, while others, less scrupulously, will. Around the world, many still feel that the surest way to this kind of security -- personal, not national -- is to get political power. In order to live, they must rule. Such people depend on what Friedman calls "imposed order," but he seems to see this as the object of ruling elites, not the goal of the masses anywhere, who presumably want "freedom to." The alternative is order based on shared values and an assumption that everyone will share in a nation's "journey of progress." The question Friedman should ask is whether everyone really can share in a journey of progress without some sort of imposed order -- order imposed upon those concerned only with their own journey and content to leave others behind.
I don't claim that the last paragraph explains Douglas McCain. To the extent that religion is relevant to his experience his motives most likely weren't entirely rational, and jihad was probably some sort of existential experience for him. Yet it seems likely that, for some reason, he and his long-dead classmate could only find fulfillment in jihad, in the struggle to bring order to the world through a caliphate. As an American McCain didn't lack "freedom to," but it clearly wasn't enough for him. That only makes him a loser or a "terrorist" in many eyes, now that we know about him, and if his solution to the world's problems was Shari'a, then even I can't regret his passing too much. His fate is less a tragedy than a warning -- not a warning against Islam but against a world where "freedom" is the only answer offered to any problem, even when the slogan, at least, is self-evidently inadequate to the problem. We can keep on blaming the losers and the evil men who seduce them with dreams of power, but if in years to come we keep on seeing such people, isn't something else to blame?