In recent weeks, the news has been filled with stories of Muslim Americans who have become involved in jihad-inspired terror plots, including Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and al-Qaeda operative Najbullah Zazi. And then there are Chicago's very own Tahawwur Rana and David Coleman Headley, who have been charged in connection with the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 and a plot to kill a Danish cartoonist. There are also pending cases involving a group from Minnesota plotting terror in Somalia and five Alexandria, Virginia men planning terror assaults in Pakistan.
If anyone is inclined to think that life in America might have driven these men to their radical agendas, think again. Unlike the societies of Europe, rife with ethno-national tensions, these men, like the rest of their Muslim American cohort, were endowed with not just the promise of, but indeed the substance of revered values, like "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Most cases involved United States citizens and come from solid middle class backgrounds. Most of the offending men had plenty of opportunity for work and education. Their radicalism has no socioeconomic explanation. Rather, it shows the power of ideology, especially among the more impressionable members of our society. And while the fact that they are Muslim and American should not be overlooked, their arrest should be viewed no differently than the Catholic-born, "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh or Jewish-born al-Qaeda leader Adam Gadahn.
Like Lindh, the aspiring Jihadis sought to subvert a society that gave them all of the privilege in the world. These are not men with any "legitimate" societal complaint; still, their stories should alarm anyone grappling with multiculturalism and identity. Collectively, these men are a canary in the coalmine. However, unlike the canary, they may well be followed by many others if we do not attempt to understand their motivation and intervene.
Their struggle is likely part of a larger countercultural terrain young Americans operate in, especially in the age of the internet and ready access to international air travel. And like any cultural struggle, the clash between the mainstream and out-stream of our society will determine our country's future. The question we should ask on our journey is how to counter the hateful ideologies that drive these men to battle their fellow Americans. The answer must in part come from renewing our commitment to American identity as not just a geographic concept, but also as a civic culture of belonging, a nation of many toiling for a common destiny.
The powerful myth of Islamic fundamentalism that drives these American terrorists must be countered with the even more potent narrative that allowed those men belong to the national family in the first place: the American creed.