Farooque Ahmed ... lived in middle-class suburban comfort with his wife and their infant son. They held steady jobs in northern Virginia's technology industry and mostly kept to themselves.
"They're a regular, everyday family," according to a friend. Regular, everyday -- a "quiet suburban dad." Except for one thing.
Ahmed, 34, pleaded guilty to two terrorism charges. In a government sting operation, he was caught plotting "to kill as many Americans as possible." On April 11, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Available facts indicate Ahmed is a vintage middle class man. His father was a bank executive. Ahmed holds a B.S. in computer science.
Make that marginally middle class. Ahmed had periods of unemployment during which he became involved in planning terrorist attacks on 4 DC metro transit stations. Someone who is marginally middle class --- being marginal to a margin -- is arguably the most middle class of all.
If economic trends keep undermining the middle class, we'll be seeing more Ahmeds.
As for "middle class" in its wider sense, i.e., any intermediate/marginal/transitional status or condition, Ahmed came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1993. In 2002, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
You've seen him many times. The nice guy with the lawnmower. Regular, everyday. Maybe too regular, too everyday ...
Let's imagine the unimaginable. Too much middle class: could that be Ahmed's problem?
On the quiet suburban dad's sentencing day,
Judge Gerald Bruce Lee said: "The looming question is why?"
Ahmed, with a full salt-and-pepper beard and glasses and wearing a green prison jumpsuit, stood before the judge and tried to explain.
"I can not describe the words ... " he said, his voice trailing off. "All I can say is I'm sorry. It was the wrong action." (The Washington Post, April 12.)
Why? Judge Lee asked. I hope the judge, jury, and Ahmed's friends and family did not expect a coherent answer.
I can not describe. Voice trailing off ... The fact is, if Ahmed could tell you why he did it, he wouldn't have done it.
I spent over 30 years researching the looming question. I insisted that the answer be more than true -- that it have practical applications: identifying terrorists, both actual and potential; interrogations; turning terrorists; infiltrating terrorist organizations; and above all, countering terrorist radicalization at home, school, workplaces, churches and mosques.
The result was a partial and provisional answer, The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion, published in 2009. I won't attempt to summarize its 496 pages. I will offer observations about two crucial issues which Ahmed's case raises.
Let's start with Public Defender Kenneth Troccoli, who represented Ahmed:
Troccoli said three things contributed to Ahmed's decision to align himself with purported terrorists: exposure to radical Islamic rhetoric from al-Awlaki and others; anti-Muslim discrimination that he and his family faced in the United States that contributed to his alienation; and trust in an associate who turned out to be an undercover operative for the government.
The operative "led Mr. Ahmed to believe he was not alone" in supporting a terrorist plot, Troccoli said.
Ahmed's initial interest, Troccoli said, was to develop a website that would allow people to communicate about the plight of the Pakistani people and Muslims in general. But as the sting operation proceeded, Ahmed eventually agreed to take more serious action "that went beyond what he initially wanted to do," Troccoli said.
Ahmed became immersed in a fantasy world with secret codes and never shared his plans with his family, according to Troccoli. Had he done so, Troccoli suggested his family would have brought him to his senses.
"Now that he has essentially woken up from this fantasy world he was in ... it's like he shook his head and said, 'What am I doing?'" Troccoli said.
One can dismiss Troccoli's triptych explanation as unabashed, unabridged puff from an overworked and understaffed public defender defending the indefensible. His is certainly the standard response -- uncreative, simplistic-- seen and heard everywhere.
Nevertheless, let's briefly look at Troccoli's answer precisely because it is so ordinary, and rekindle Judge Lee's question to take that answer one step further.
Why was Ahmed susceptible in the first place to radical rhetoric from Anwar al-Awlaki and others? Lots of people are exposed to radical rhetoric; very few become terrorists. Salt-and-pepper beard: why Ahmed?
As for alienation, millions of immigrants are alienated and discriminated against, yet the majority do not plot to kill as many Americans as possible. That is the second reason why, looking at Ahmed in his green jumpsuit, the judge's question doesn't go away.
We arrive at the third and final part of Troccoli's answer: Ahmed was led astray by government agents. Here the same logic applies. In order to entrap someone, there must be something to entrap. What was it?
Reading those words, I think even Troccoli would agree that the looming question still looms ...
To start to answer it, let me backtrack a bit -- 2,000 years.
We have been told since Aristotle that the socioeconomic middle class is the center of reason and balance, of moderation and reconciliation of other classes. By and large, history has justified that belief. No wonder integration into the middle class is so revered as the definitive cure for alienated immigrants and other minorities.
If the belief is true, however, it is not the whole truth. The middle class is also the center of extremism and terrorism. Today, it is taboo to mention those two facets. Only a taboo can account for the enormous, emotional shock so widely felt every time a middle class man like Ahmed turns terrorist. Only a taboo can explain the energy -- the loom -- in Judge Lee's question.
Extremism and terrorism are born of middle class rebellion. Rebellion comes to the surface when the prevailing mode of social moderation and mediation maintained by the middle class becomes inadequate.
Rebellion is the middle class's principal repair tool. As we saw in the 1960s and 1970s in America, France, and elsewhere, once necessary changes are made and balance is restored, middle class rebellion disappears -- or rather, switches from manifest to latent. Rebellion never vanishes entirely. And that can create problems ...
Middle class rebellion's role is analogous to the role played by antibodies the body produces to fight diseases. The antibodies are as necessary as they are desirable. However, after the invading disease has been defeated, sometimes those antibodies turn and attack healthy tissue. The result is an autoimmune disease. The body, in defending itself, ends up attacking itself.
The solution is not to destroy the antibodies, but to guide them away from unwanted destruction. With that idea in mind, one more backtrack is necessary:
The middle class is totally dependent on other classes. A condition of dependency always creates ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, on the other. There's the good side and the bad side. It is precisely his own ambivalent feelings -- for the most part unconscious and stirred up by outside events -- that the middle class rebel finds intolerable and seeks to destroy.
Farooque Ahmed; Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad (another "normal dude. You wouldn't have looked at him twice."); the Portland terrorist Mohamad Osman Mohamud (a "good kid"): the solution to terrorism ultimately lies in middle class rebels becoming conscious of their own ambivalence. That is the only way they -- and we -- can control it, rather than being controlled by it.
That solution is seldom, if ever, pursued.
Instead, the rebel tries to jump off the emotional roller coaster by grabbing what he regards to be an absolute truth. An absolute truth is the opposite of ambivalence. Christianity, Islam, Marxism-Leninism, cults and personalities of all shapes and descriptions: the absolutes vary over time and place. What does not vary, however, is the middle class rebel's ability to make an absolute out of anything: a straight line will do. That is why attacking any particular entity, e.g., Islam, which a rebel has converted into an absolute truth and attached himself to, never in practice solves the problem.
When Troccoli noted that Ahmed seemed to be under a spell -- living in a fantasy world with secret codes -- he referred to that attachment. Now that he has essentially woken up from this fantasy world he was in ... it's like he shook his head and said, 'What am I doing?' Which is another way of saying, something in Ahmed's unconscious had risen up, seized control.
If Troccoli is telling the truth -- that Ahmed woke up with dismay -- then Ahmed took a giant step. We may yet get a coherent answer from him. The reason is the instant a middle class rebel begins to genuinely question his own basic assumptions, he ceases to be a middle class rebel.
Middle class rebellion is first and foremost an ideology. Ideologies do many things, but no ideology can seriously question its own premises. The moment such questioning begins, an ideology loses its unconscious roots. The ideology that becomes conscious dies.
The ideology of middle class rebellion is so deeply, unconsciously ingrained that escape from it is normally experienced as release from a spell. That is why self-generated questioning about basic premises, both logical and emotional, is a key development for interrogators and others to watch for and work with. Indeed, the lack of profound questioning and of the doubt and anguish accompanying it, is the telltale heart of the incorrigible terrorist who "sincerely apologizes" merely to cut a deal for less hard time in prison.
Kenneth Troccoli touched on the second essential point Ahmed's case raised. Had Ahmed's family known about his fantasy world, they could have brought him to his senses. Time and again, where family support is not forthcoming, other groups fill the gap in the middle class rebel's life. Al-Qaeda intuits that fact and acts on it. So, too, did the U.S. government: Ahmed believed he was not alone. The challenge to law enforcement authorities is taking their knowledge beyond the limited scope of generating terrorist cases to prosecute.
We arrive at the doorstep to the answer the looming question merits and demands: a real life, observable, behavioral, tactile answer -- not an answer in words in a speech, book, or on the Internet. This post included.