By Frank Batavick
It was a time of increased immigration to a previously imperialist country from a former possession. The newcomers settled in its biggest city and continued to speak their native language and maintain their cultural practices. Assimilation proved difficult. Jobs were scarce. The young, especially those 15-25, felt alienated and marginalized and were much influenced by the media. They were prone to violence and crime soared. The public demanded answers to this new curse on the land.
The above describes the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York City after World War II. An estimated 40,000 settled there in 1946 alone. They faced discrimination, racism, and an antagonistic job market. Some of the teens turned to crime, becoming part of the post-war juvenile delinquency epidemic. The arrest of those under 18 doubled between 1950 and 1959, convincing the Senate Crime Committee to investigate. It laid part of the blame on mass media’s violent comic books, TV shows and movies. The country surely survived these events of over 60 years ago, but they left many cultural markers, with the most prosaic being the musical West Side Story.
The first paragraph could also just as easily describe the disenfranchised youth of Paris whose parents hail from France’s former colonies in the Middle East and North Africa. They remain strangers in a strange land, holding on to their languages, Islamic faith, and traditional dress for women, though France saw fit to ban the full-body covering burqa in 2010. The country’s unemployment rate hovers around 10.4% and is much higher among immigrant groups. Over 30% of France’s population is under 24 years of age and, as with youth everywhere, it has been quick to adopt the Internet with its Facebook, texting, and videos. Here the new media have triggered violence and crime as well.
I was struck by the many similarities between these two, disparate, ethnic groups, and making this comparison helped me comprehend what’s been going on in France and other parts of continental Europe and Great Britain that have experienced a large influx of immigrants from former colonial states. However, the muggings, car thefts, and occasional murders committed by the juvenile delinquents of the 1950s cannot compare to the sheer butchery that exploded in the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and recently across Paris. Though in their 30s, Said and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, marinated in the same churning stew as the immigrant cohort described above. So what pushed them beyond the pale of decency to commit such heinous acts? The answer lies in the deadly virus of radical Islam.
Like the juvenile delinquents of the 1950s, these men had been marginalized by society and hungered for a sense of belonging. But instead of joining a teenage gang, they found comradeship in jihad and a sense of mission in persuasive Internet recruitment videos promulgated by radical Islam. But this doesn’t mean all jihadists are religious in our sense of the word. Religion only represents their “gang colors,” a common cause to rally around. Chérif Kouachi previously admitted in court records that he didn’t consider himself a devout Muslim and had only been to a mosque two or three times. He did add that U.S. actions in Iraq, especially the horrors that transpired at the Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of American soldiers, motivated him to get involved in jihad. This is just another example of the unintended consequences of a war that still weighs heavy on history.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the role of weaponry in this sad tale. The juvenile delinquents of the 1950s depended on zip guns (crude, improvised firearms that used a spring to detonate a bullet) and switch blades. Today, whether in Paris or the U.S., terrorists have at their disposal a wide assortment of military assault weapons acquired either illegally or legally and capable of emptying a 30 round magazine in seconds. Hence, the butchery at Charlie Hebdo and at the rock concert and café. I will leave the gun debate to another day and understand that if the bad guys have access to these weapons, so must the good guys. However, automatic weapons were illegal in the 1950s and not for sale at every gun show.
I am by no means making excuses for terrorists. I abhor their actions and only seek to understand what makes them tick. The reasons appear to be far more complex than their simply being of a certain religion.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.