Unfortunately, our frontal lobes are another story. They are only partially baked.
It is no wonder military organizations like to recruit young men at 19. When they're nearly ripe, guys are strong and fearless. Not quite able to make the connection between the real (adult) world and childhood fantasy, 19 year olds don’t hesitate to start fights with hulking drunken louts in bars, or take hairpin turns at 70 mph in the rain. They have just enough eye-hand coordination to throw a good punch, but not enough brains to get out of the situation that led them there in the first place. Hence, a 19-year-old male is at his peak, physically and sexually, but he also is at the age when he is at highest risk for killing or being murdered, dying in a car accident or by suicide or poison, usually from drugs or alcohol.
Of course, such a death would be simply the most obvious act of stupidity. Perhaps not lethal, less noticeable acts still wreak havoc on our lives, even though they occur in living rooms and restaurants, on phones or computers, in correspondence or as responses in conversations.
We join cults at that age. We marry people we hardly know. We have sex without precautions and produce babies, unintentionally. We insult people over superficial differences. We alienate our parents or friends, often thoughtlessly. We waste time and money on fads, and succumb to peer pressure as we set our adult lives' priorities, even though we may truly believe we are making our own, unique decisions.
At 19, appearance counts, big time.
How do I know these things? I was 19, once. In fact, like most people who of have traversed that dangerous milestone and lived to tell about it, I spent close to 30 years recovering from choices I made during that milestone year.
Luckily for me, I had the benefit of a strong foundation, in the form of an intact family and a good education. Both helped me -- directly or indirectly -- through the hard times that came later.
At 17, I was out saving the world as a Freedom Rider. I wanted to be a concert pianist but --fortunately or unfortunately -- mononucleosis got in the way. (I wasn't really good enough, anyway.) So at 18, I switched to a major in foreign language with a plan to work for the UN as an interpreter. Or maybe be a war correspondent. By 19, I was into poetry and art, certain I would someday make my mark in the literary world!
Halfway through my 20th year, I married a guy I never should have married, after knowing him for four whole months. Seemed like an eternity to me. Within weeks, I was scrambling just to stay alive, let alone produce art. A full-time job as a waitress in a French restaurant looked mighty good to me at the time!
So, why did I do such a stupid thing? I'm sure it was mostly to rebel against my parents. I had been SUCH a good kid (if only they had known!). And, at 19, I was physically and emotionally ready for sex but too tied to the social mores of the day to venture very far in that direction, especially if it took me outside acceptable or legal limits.
I also was stupid enough to think I could handle marriage, work and college at the same time, without giving much thought to who would pay for it all. I knew where babies came from, but must have thought money fell from the sky.
So, if I were 19 today, is it possible my very stupid choice might be something violent or illegal -- like setting off a bomb -- rather than something noble and non-violent, or self-destructive and poorly conceived -- like tilting at windmills or trying to save the world, one loser at a time?
Maybe. Probably not, but I would not rule out the possibility.
Could I have been enticed into joining a religious cult -- say, Hari Krishna or a radical Muslim group -- at 19? Maybe. Probably not, but I did get involved in civil rights through beliefs cultivated by faith, without understanding that most of the members of the church I belonged to never offered anything but lip service to such noble causes. I, on the other hand, took rights and wrongs very seriously and was quite willing to put my very young life on the line, as long as it was for a good cause.
What if extenuating circumstances had greased the wheels? What if someone I admired had encouraged me to do something outrageous or horrible? What if that person had enticed me with drugs or sex? What if I had fallen more and more under the spell of substance abuse or another addiction and had flunked out of school, disappointing myself as well as my family? I think I might have considered suicide. Oddly, at the time, what they thought of me was extremely important.
But, what if my parents had deserted me, moving 9,000 miles away to be part of a completely different culture? What if I had found myself alone in a world where I believed I could never fit in? I do remember that, at 19, fitting in -- somewhere! -- was everything.
I’ve been thinking about all these things in light of the Boston bombing and subsequent investigation, and have to say, I believe these guys—especially the young one – could have been any number of us at that age, or any number of our children.
I proved my worth as an adult at 19 by defying racial bigots, yet staying within the letter of the law, but the brothers Tsarnaev chose to maim and kill. The results may have been more heinous, but were we that different under the skin?
It's an understatement to say this, I know, but we live in a much more violent world today than the one I knew at their age. Violence isn’t just expected today, it’s demanded.
Look around. Action always wins over talk. Watch or read Hunger Games, for instance, which shows us that winning is all and the only way to be a hero is to be the last one standing.
I don’t know. I don’t feel so innocent about this attack against society, or feel so superior over these guys. It could have been me on either end of one of those bombs. Or, it could have been you, or one of our kids. Even kids who were well liked and smart enough to win awards.
I have no doubt the two brothers committed these horrible acts. I just don’t see them as monsters, but rather as misguided, angry, stupid kids who watched too much television, were encouraged by their parents to yearn for all the wrong things, probably found solace in drugs, then discovered they were actors in a very bad movie they had created themselves. I suspect they knew how it would all turn out, or they would have taken off long before they tried to.
I'm not saying they shouldn't pay for their crimes. One already has, big time. The other is sure to be found guilty, but I won’t be surprised if he begs for mercy and shows remorse. That’s gotta count for something. In a way, admitting guilt and asking forgiveness takes more guts than shooting one’s way out of a fight with cops, especially when you see yourself as the victim of circumstance.
The most important thing I can get out of this crazy story is that, for every Tsarnaev brother, there are about a million other young people caught in similarly lousy movie plots. Many have far less structure in their lives and more reason to go astray than the brothers Tsarnaev. If we are serious about doing something to prevent more carnage, there's a lot we must do to help young people make it through those treacherous years. But, think of the lives that could be saved!