Terrorist sons, anguished parents

I can’t get my mind off of Mr., and presumably Mrs., Mutallab, whose son is accused of trying to blow up a plane full of innocent people, or the parents of the five American Muslim students who allegedly planned to join forces with anti-American jihadists. In both cases, family concerns about their sons’ radical leanings led them to alert authorities.

We are indebted to the older generations. Umar Abdulmutallab, of course, managed to buy a ticket to Detroit and travel a long way to get there despite his father’s rather courageous action; but no one knows how much damage might have been done by the five aspiring jihadists had they not been apprehended.

We will also probably never know what emotional struggles went on before those family decisions were made. But these young men didn’t grow up unattended on the streets. They were presumably loved and nurtured and cared for, given opportunities to pursue the American dream before they opted to try invoking an American nightmare. Making the decision to take action which would, in all probability, have those sons wind up in jail had to have been a nightmare itself close to the top of the worst a parent can imagine.

Decades ago my young daughter came to me one afternoon in tears, literally shaking with fear and remorse. She had been to a department store with a fifth-grade friend who professed skill and experience in shoplifting and urged my daughter to give it a try. The friend was right, she knew how to pull this off. My daughter dropped a piece of costume jewelry she had taken into my hand, recoiling as if it were molten lava.

We got in the car, drove to the store and sat for what seemed an interminable length of time outside the store manager’s office. My daughter repeated her story and we handed over the loot. The manager was, I thought, unduly harsh. No acceptance of apology or points for repentance and return of the necklace, no pat on the back for my good parenting. He told my daughter about crime and punishment and citizenship. He did call me later, explaining that it was necessary to deal harshly with teenage (she was not yet a teen) crime, “because it only takes one persuasive bad person to sway dozens of others.” I thought I detected a suggestion of Bad Parent in there too — but I was such a wreck by that time the suggestion could have come from within.

My daughter, I hasten to say, grew up to be an extraordinarily good person, the mother of two of my flawless grandchildren. She may remember little of this adventure. But it is seared into my own memory. Partly because of the reflexive hesitancy I felt, the reflexive wish to protect her from retribution — a black-mark communication from store to school, ostracism by her popular friend (I wonder what happened to that child; her parents didn’t seem overly concerned by my call to them), potential trauma from store security people. My stomach can still churn over it all.

Every parent has a collection of those stories. Most of us, though, are looking at things like potential pre-teen shoplifting; the Mutallabs were looking at potential jihad. Did their son never have doubts? Were the people who persuaded him to try blowing himself and a plane load of others to smithereens so convincing he never looked back? When did he turn from being his parent’s son to a jihadist tool? What amount of wrenching debate preceded his father’s call to American security people?

I don’t have any answers, only those heartbreaking questions.


  1. Oh, Fran, you have really spoken from the heart on the unique agony we parents experience when our children make mistakes. And it goes so far beyond embarrassment or how their poor action might reflect on us. It is a deep-seated knowledge that their mistakes can cause them such pain and we want so much to spare them from it! Here in Virginia, we were so caught up in the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech, and felt such compassion for those students too. I also felt compassion for the President of the University whose son was a classmate of my son’s at Rice.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I doubt we’ll ever hear, or know, about those families. But they had to have wanted, in some ways, to protect their children, and what tremendous courage it took to put others’ safety first. I also know parents who did everything right, only to have their children go directions that were wrong – – so who can figure it out? Destructive causes must have tremendous pull; I’m going to keep rooting for the forces of good. I spent a lot of time in Blacksburg in the very olden days (when I was in college in Lynchburg), and felt those blows all the way out here on the left coast.

Leave a Reply