Last weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to South Bend, Indiana, for the Purdue at Notre Dame football game. It was a very long day -- the principal, and a parishioner, and I left long before dawn, so we could arrive on campus before 9 am, for good parking, and didn't get home till after 11:30 pm -- but what fun!
We sat behind the student section, which just added to the energy of course; and we had plenty of time to walk about campus, to visit the Grotto, to admire and pray in the Basilica, to meet fellow alumni (not to me, but to my traveling companions) and to enjoy bratwursts, snacks and cold beverages.
And, of course, to enjoy the game itself, and what fun that was!
Well, observing the college kids, just below our seats, cheering and responding largely in unison, I found myself making a mental comparison to the frightening images we see on TV or online, of young men of similar age, likewise responding in unison to the promptings of Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda and other evil organizations.
Now I am not saying college sports is like Hezbollah! Gimme a break! What I'm saying is that in one part of the world, young men, full of energy and drive, get caught up in something innocent and fun; in another part of the world, they get caught up in something wicked. The commonalities are: (a) young men of a particular age group and (b) an emotional, group experience.
Why even talk about the two in the same thought?
Well, because it occurs to me that, first, it is natural for young men (and perhaps young women of the same age group) to respond with enthusiasm to a group cause. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a good thing. The key is what kind of cause. There is a reason, it seems to me (and this observation is not original to me) that such young men are, in times of peril, drafted into combat. It is necessary, in such events, to marshall large groups of men in a common cause, and to have them respond with intensity.
This gives rise to a contrast, and this brings me to my point.
It seems to me a very good thing that in America, and many other places, this energy is harnessed . . . innocuously. So all these young men were chanting, "We are ND!" Nothing at all wrong with that. Nothing sinister; nothing scary. Just fun.
Is it possible that this phenomenon of young men is part of the reason Hezbollah and like groups can get young men to march around in Lebanon, chanting things like "death to Zionists" and "death to America" and who knows what else? Is it possible that for some number of them, their initial participation is of a similar quality? (I emphasize "initial" in that last sentence, because this makes all the difference between the phenomena I am comparing; in the latter case, the "cheerleaders" are seeking to induct these young men into something hateful, destructive and wicked.)
What merit can this observation have?
Well, it raises the question of what might be helpful in defusing the extremism that represents a real threat to safety and liberty in our world. How many of the young men drawn into al Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and I don't know what other evil forces, might -- in an alternate universe, or perhaps in a happy future -- be happily cheering from the sidelines of their favorite football team?
I happen not to think this is simply a matter of establishing an American-style University of Fallujah and a Mideast Big-10 Conference or something like that. There's certainly more to it. My points are more subtle:
1. Young men and young people have admirable zeal; if it's currently harnessed, in the U.S., to college football, that's not all bad.
2. If need be, these young people in this country have amply demonstrated they will harness it to more enduring causes -- if we ask them or give them the opportunity. So don't put 'em down as merely "decadent, privileged youth."
3. Given the right context of culture, personal, religious and civic values, these young people's zeal will tend in a more healthy and positive -- or at least, harmless -- direction; given a different context, in a malevolent direction.
4. It may well be in our interest, as Americans, as citizens of "the West," and as folks of who simply want a future not darkened by terror's threat, to attend to point number 3. My example of "University of Fallujah," belonging to the Mideast Big 10 may sound silly to us; but something like that actually be part of a happier future, both for the Mideast, for us, and the world.
5. I.e., how about a broad, "middle-class"-ification of the broad swath of the world, from, say North Africa to somewhere in Asia, that seems to be the breeding ground for all this seething, murderous groupthink in service to an extremist Islamic movement?
What do you say?