There's been a lot of talk recently about what motivated the Marathon bombers. The assumption is that they were following the dictates of a radical form of Islam, but a lot of people think that it was their sense of alienation that drove them toward that belief system. A lot of people are wondering what we can do to prevent young men, especially immigrants, from feeling like outsiders.
This is the wrong question.
There are always going to be alienated young men (and women). Young people often feel like outsiders. For many of us, it's simply a phase we go through. I went through a couple of years of feeling pretty isolated myself, where I lived alone and had a work-from-home job, and barely got out of the house. I suspect that this was a more extreme form of alienation, a combination of my innate shyness and lack of impetus to get out, than most people ever experience. It was a very lonely time for me, a time when I would sometimes feel like my life wasn't going anywhere. And yet, it never occurred to me to lash out.
Some of this was just my nature. Setbacks don't generally cause me to react with anger or depression. Which is not to say that I was driven to overcome them. My most common reaction to setbacks is to do my best to ignore them, using television, video games, and/or books.
But another large component is simply that it would be wrong. My own belief system is quite emphatic that hurting people is wrong, so my mind is trained not to work that way.
And I wonder if this is part of the problem that we see in the case of not just the Marathon bombers, but others who commit horrific crimes--Sandy Hook, the Aurora movie theater shootings, and others. The dominant philosophy today is one of postmodernism, that all beliefs are equally valid (or equally invalid). However, a philosophy like that doesn't carry much weight when you need to decide what's right and what's wrong. So people turn to other philosophies, ones that have clear lines and a strong code. But since there's no guidance on how to choose a philosophy, nihilism is just as valid as theism or Platonism or Essentialism.
And when it comes to moral conduct, not all philosophies are created equal. The problem is that our society wants to enforce moral conduct not with a solid grounding of any belief system, but an appeal to emotion and self-esteem.
This is not to say that there's only one belief system that a society can operate on. Societies have successfully operated on many different belief systems. But not all belief systems have successfully been a basis for a society. And a society based explicitly on a refusal to acknowledge the truth of any belief system seems destined for difficulties.
The problem is that I'm not sure there's a good solution to this problem, not one that would be acceptable in a pluralistic society.