There has been a lot of media coverage in my area about John Maguire, the young Canadian killed in action in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. There has been much written about his youth, asking how someone could grow up to renounce Canadian values and embrace such an extremist form of Islam.
When I wrote about terrorists and alienation a couple of days ago this column I first published on March 15, 1992, was in the back of my mind.
I think they were trying to intimidate me.
I was minding my own business, sitting in an Ottawa pizza shop, munching on a slice and reading a novel. I had noticed the four teenagers when I came in, but had dismissed them from my mind.
They were probably about fifteen years old, maybe a year on either side. Three of them were wearing leather jackets, the fourth a black and red plaid hunting jacket. They were loud and crude, about what you would expect of city teens hanging out downtown.
One of them stuck his head near mine and asked “So what are you reading?” I showed him the cover. “I just bought that book yesterday,” he exclaimed. “Sure you did,” I replied. (Naturally I had my doubts. He didn’t look like the type that would be reading an obscure science fiction novel – he didn’t look like the type that would know how to read.)
I’m still not quite sure how the conversation progressed from there. They were obviously looking to impress me, but I wasn’t about to be impressed. The one with the stringy red hair tried hardest. He told me he had been in the local children’s hospital with mental problems. “Happens to lots of people,” I replied. His father, so he said, worked for a hi-tech company and was a drug addict. The boys said they were in a band together. They told me the band name – I told them it was already taken by a band in the U.K.
The one wearing the Anthrax t-shirt asked if I could tell his future. He held out his palm to me, and I told him I saw deafness approaching if he continued to listen to heavy metal bands like Anthrax. The other three, all wearing Metallica t-shirts, seemed surprised I knew anything about music. We began talking about what they listened to, specifically about heavy metal. My years as a DJ held me in good stead. I chastened them for listening to bands that were popular when I was their age. Go out and get your own heroes, I told them.
“How come somebody so old knows so much about music,” they asked. I just smiled and, my pizza finished, headed for the door. “Maybe we should follow you and kill you,” one of them shouted after me.
The exchange got me to thinking about being a teenager and being the parent of a teenager. Neither is an easy role. I remember being a teenager. The world was less complex then. My son will probably have a tougher time than I did.
I felt pretty sad really, after talking with those kids. I don’t know how much to believe of what they told me. It might all be true or it might all be a story told to impress a stranger. Probably the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
I came away with a feeling of regret. I was pressed for time and can’t solve the problems of society on my own, but I did want to get to know those children better. They really seemed like good kids – the death threat was just a last attempt to see if I would rise to the bait.
Maybe that is one of the problems with the way our society deals with teenagers. We look at the surface and make our judgements. Perhaps what we need is to look below the skin and see what it is that makes these kids tick.
I wonder what happened to those boys, who now would be approaching 40 years old. They seemed to be heading toward a path to nowhere, but that may not have been an accurate perception on my part. It strikes me that it is young men like them who today get caught up in extremist causes. They want to believe in something but don’t always have the maturity to determine what is true.