Missing the Violence

Nations from whom ISIS fighters came are wondering what to do with the remnants, the still dangerous fighters and their sometimes equally violent and ideologically extreme women now being held in camps in Syria. Lessons from the centuries long conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland are not encouraging.

Kevin Barry O’Donnell told me that he and his friends wanted the Troubles to come back. “The madness, the riots, the shooting, the bombings, everything,” he said of the 30 years of conflict between mostly Catholic republicans who wanted to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who wanted it to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

I was interviewing Mr. O’Donnell in 2017 for a film I was making about life after the Troubles. He was 16 years old and living in Derry, the city in Northern Ireland that was famous as both the site of the conflict’s beginning and one of its worst atrocities, the killing of 14 Catholics by British soldiers in 1972 in an event known as Bloody Sunday.

Mr. O’Donnell remembered none of it. The Troubles officially ended in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement — before he was born. But he expressed a potent nostalgia.”


Why would any right-minded person long for a return to violence? Because it’s a lot more exciting for a group of 20 year olds to stand in the back of a truck waving semi-automatic weapons,  screaming slogans and terrifying the populace than it is to pack a lunch bucket and go to a poorly paying job, or hang around all day with no job at all and no prospects of one. In the Troubles, young Mr. O’Donnell could have been somebody. Ditto for a young Middle Eastern man lured to the promise of the caliphate.

Hard to imagine how to change the narrative in a way that would entice these young men onto a different path, one where nostalgia for violence is not the norm.

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