Ever since the capture of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” the media has been on the lookout for overly enthusiastic high school students who convert to Islam and end up on the front lines of the war on terror:

The story of Mr. Walker as a soul-searching student at an alternative high school who converted to Islam at 16 and journeyed to Yemen to study the Koran, only to emerge among the Taliban over a week ago, has shocked many people here — including his parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker — as much as it has shocked the rest of the country.

Last week in the New York Times, Andrea Elliott reported on another young American “soul-searcher,” Omar Hammami, who is the first American to have penetrated the commanding ranks of Al Qaeda:

As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. “It felt cool just to be with him,” his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. “You knew he was going to be a leader.” […]

A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

What is clear is that in each case, the stories tend to imply (without really developing the thought) that such transformations of the clean-cut American teenager into a terrifying, violent anti-Westerner is the result of some unfulfilled existential yearning.  The question that is repeatedly dodged is whether there is an intrinsic relation between the now-standard ritual of teenagers finding their authentic selves and the turn to violent fundamentalism.

The almost oppressive narrative of self-realization that can be found in today’s media, from Oprah onwards, in combination with the labyrinth of the mixed messages teenagers are forced to metabolize, might be seen as “incubators” for violent ideologies.  In other words, “next door jihadists” seem to be reacting to a contradiction within the western way of life, rather than simply representing an outright rejection of it.  As Elliott reports, their standard profile also suggests that they “tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world.”

In the absence or breakdown of the traditional forms of social identity and the rituals that sustain them, the suspicion that all of this talk about self-fashioning and inner realization is just another bankrupt form of empty consumerism, might just lead to a dangerous cocktail of spiritual desperation and moral confusion.