Church and family fabric needed to help troubled youth


By James F. Burns



The Oregon shooter idolized the IRA—the Brit-hating, bullet-and-bomb-loving Irish Republican Army. Such terrorists, in turn, are only too happy to be role models for aimless youth such as Christopher Mercer. An empty life is offered meaning, adventure, and fame. What’s not to like?

Mercer’s MySpace page paired his own photo with IRA posters featuring black-masked, rifle-toting terrorists. The real thing, Chris. Such hapless, hopeless young men could vicariously identify with these paramilitary men who turned guns into glory by killing for the cause—even though Mercer had little understanding of that cause.

Both the Islamic State of today—and the IRA in their heyday—could recruit young men better than a college football coach hungry for quarterbacks and big linemen. Slick posters with implicit promises of purpose, excitement, and glory with a cult-like club of killers. Crazy kids were lining up to join a death machine which would even glorify their own death if they fell in the line of duty. Murderers make great martyrs.

What starry-eye Chris didn’t see was the other side of that IRA poster—the grieving families that terrorists leave behind, nine of them in Oregon right now. Rita Restorick could tell them that the aftermath of a murdered loved one is not an easy road to walk. She’s been there and in some sense always will be.

Rita Restorick is an English mother who lost her beloved son Stephen to an IRA sniper’s bullet. Shot in the back while on guard duty near the village of Bessbrook in Northern Ireland.

He was the last British soldier to die before a 1998 peace agreement designed to shut down such senseless and cowardly killings.

Rita poured out her emotions in a book, “Death of a Soldier,” a desperate plea for peace

in a world that seems to feed and fester on violence. After Stephen’s death, Rita found her surroundings maddeningly normal. The nearby countryside: “How could everything still be

so beautiful, how could the birds still sing and the sun still shine?” The town she lived in: “Our smiling, fun-loving son was dead, yet everyone still rushed around—life goes on but how could it?”

Rita’s book is not an easy read. She goes to see Stephen’s body. “I saw a very plush coffin with white satin lining. Stephen was dressed in his number one black dress uniform. It looked as if he was asleep, and I was surprised by how long and beautiful his dark eyelashes were. But something seemed different about his hair. Then I realized: there was no wet-look gel on it.”

Just hours before the Oregon assassin turned a college classroom into chaos, Northern Ireland officials announced that Gerry Adams would not be prosecuted for the murder of Jean McConville, a mother-of-ten who offended the IRA by comforting a wounded British soldier on her doorstep. The IRA normally would have left Jean’s body in the street as a warning to others—but the puppeteers who pulled the IRA strings decided to start “disappearing” such casualties of their war. Jean was secretly buried below the border, her body not found for three decades.

The problem we have here is that the puppeteers who entice lone-wolves like the Oregon shooter and so many others don’t have a U.S. address per se. Their reach from overseas is one of the worse results of our gee-whiz internet technology. Like Rita Restorick’s pain—and her new brothers and sisters in Oregon treading the same painful path—I have no easy answer for breaking the fascination of kids with guns and glorified killing.

I’m a product of an era when we had a strong church-and-family cultural fabric which served as a safety net for wayward, aimless youth. Let’s begin rebuilding that base which made America good as well as great. And let it be a base which befriends, counsels, and carves out cultural space for kids who go missing—from life—before the terrorists find them.

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James F. Burns, a retired professor at the University of Florida, taught a course on the Northern Ireland Troubles and has written on terrorism for four decades.

By James F. Burns

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