Idle Hands Create Dangerous Minds

Apparently terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev received welfare and section 8 housing, as well as a public attorney to defend him from charges that he battered a former girlfriend. While he was a child in America, Tsarnaev’s parents received welfare too. The total value of the benefits was approximately $100,000.

Many will draw the wrong conclusions from those facts. Those harboring animosity towards immigrants believe that the United States allowed dangerous people into the country and supported them too. These citizens are upset that our government supported terrorists. But, can it be that we helped to create a terrorist? Could we correctly conclude that our welfare state creates dangerous people?

America, above all other countries in the world, has embraced immigrants and prospered as a result. In most countries in the world the children and grandchildren of immigrants are still considered foreigners. In America, the children of immigrants are Americans. In the history of the United States, hard work and sacrifice by immigrants made that integration possible. Integration was not an ideal to strive for; it was reality.

But the welfare state discourages that beautiful reality. Could it be that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not inherently evil? Could it be that he is no different than you or me?  “People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings,” wrote Anne Frank, “but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”

Basic goodness thrives in a system that rewards us for creating value for others. What happens to that basic goodness when we subsidize individuals so they need not have a purpose that is tied to creating value for others?

We all share a right mind and a wrong mind and the power to choose between. I know my wrong mind sometimes feeds me thoughts that were I to act on them would be inimical to my well-being and the well-being of others. If I wake up tomorrow morning thinking “I’m tired; I want to stay in bed all day and watch movies,” I wouldn’t entertain the thought for long.

Why not? A lifetime of honoring my professional obligations has turned my mind permanently in other directions. Why do I, like you, have a lifetime of honoring my professional obligations? Perhaps simple economic incentives are at work. If I didn’t work I would destroy my professional career and suffer economically.

To be sure, economic considerations are not the only important factor influencing our decisions. Perhaps an imbued value of working towards a meaningful life is a major force in our decisions? In reality, there is a complex mixture of interactive forces driving our decision-making.

Tsarnaev is fully responsible for turning to and then honoring the dark side of his mind. But he and his parents were able-bodied and capable of a purposeful life. Our insane policies that provides welfare for able-bodied men and women, allows them time to spend more time considering darker thoughts—thoughts of blame and hate.

Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni described his nephews as not “able to settle themselves and … hating everyone who did.” They were “losers”, he said. Could it be that welfare allowed them the luxury of not settling themselves? Did welfare provide them the time to stew in their hateful thinking?

A purposeful life is built on interactions with others. When we interact with others, we often learn that we are not much different from those we think we hate. Fed by welfare, Tsarnaev had a purposeless life; and the hate in his heart grew unabated by the normal interactions of everyday work life.

Collectively, we seem to be squandering our own rich cultural inheritance of common values such as working hard, keeping your word, and exercising personal liberty to find where our talents and personal genius are best utilized.

About American values, a recent commenter on an article in the Wall Street Journal wrote this:

I was a Public Health Nurse in Baltimore’s inner city when the money from Johnson’s “Great Society” was being put into circulation. As an advocate for children, I could see then how “paying” mothers to get rid of fathers was a very destructive idea. (They called their welfare – Aid to Dependent Children – check a “paycheck.”)

I did not believe that it would be allowed to continue and increase. Surely rational civic leaders would see the destructive nature of the Welfare System!

I was wrong!

Now what was done to the inner city’s poor, is being done to the “middle class.”

Despondently, I do not see any force for change strong enough to overcome the dynamic now in place, where such a large percentage of America’s residents are accustomed to getting stuff from other Americans, and think it is “fair” and “just.”

I have wondered, while his wife was working long hours, how many times did Tamerlan Tsarnaev wash the dishes? I have never once had a thought “Oh, good, I get to wash the dishes today.” Yet, I often find doing the dishes to be a pleasant, transformative experience. I find doing the dishes helps to still a busy mind. Perhaps, if Tamerlan did more dishes his deadly attack may not have happened.

My twins are seniors in high school and members of the National Honor Society (NHS). There is a strong service component to maintain NHS membership in good standing. The first year my daughter was a member, she fulfilled her service obligations because she had to. Now she volunteers for extra service opportunities because she loves to.

Being a member of the National Honor Society is a privilege and with those privileges there are obligations. Being a parent or a spouse has obligations. Being a citizen of a free society has obligations, too. Obligations can be transformative.

To subsidize people to escape from the obligations that everyday life asks of all of us is to help create destructive individuals. No, most who escape from their obligations will not grow up to be terrorists, but many of them will grow up to lead lives that are shallow and callous towards others.

Is Tamerlan Tsarnaev no different from you and me? Considering that idea may be upsetting; but considering that idea may help to reduce the criminal population among us. Ideal hands enable dangerous minds.

2 Responses to Idle Hands Create Dangerous Minds

  1. Susan Kelly says:

    “What happens to that basic goodness when we subsidize individuals so they need not have a purpose that is tied to creating value for others?” What a good question. I wish there could be a national debate on it. Great column, Barry.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, wouldn’t that be wonderful? First, enough would have to believe that “basic goodness” exists in all of us. Next, enough would have to question their beliefs about the beneficial impact of such programs. I could go on …but it comes down to be willing to see and question our beliefs before such a conversation can begin.

      Thanks for linking the post and asking the question on Facebook too. I would love to hear what others have to say.

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