When I was 15 years old I smoked nearly twenty cigarettes a day. I also drank from my father’s liquor cabinet and threw up a lot, both from overindulgence in alcohol and my constant flirtation with bulimia. I made out with lots of boys at that age too, some with my freshly puke-scented breath. Some I didn’t even like. It was just something to do.
I went to Catholic school to learn discipline, so I wouldn’t totally go off the rails like my brother, who at that time had not been permitted to graduate with his class due to excessive truancy. I was supposed to be different, but I was so tragically the same. I think we all are at that age. I look back on those years now with no regret or sadness. I got most of my self-destructive compulsions out of my system very early, so now I can focus on making my life and the lives of those who live on this world with me better. I am not the hottest of messes anymore. I am a tepid one.
The whole reason I’m here thinking about myself at that age, some 14 years later, is that I am trying to make sense of why, at the age of 15, three more girls from the UK are traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. What, in their minds, is their purpose, their motivation?
There’s little to no evidence that these young ladies were radicalised at home or at school. The finger is being firmly pointed at social media, but even there the evidence is flimsy at best. These are not the first girls to do this. There have been eight girls in the last seven months who have made this same choice and hop on a plane from the UK to Syria. Apparently to fight and to marry. So what the hell is happening?
I can’t help but wonder if what caused these girls to pack up and leave home was the same motivation that started me smoking and drinking and kissing those boys? Boredom and curiosity. This generation of teenagers have so much more to be dissatisfied with. They are constantly told that they’re doomed, there’s no jobs, no prospects and for the first time in the UK, university fees are totally unaffordable. I can’t help but wonder if I had a “cause” at the tender age of 15 I’d have left home to fight for it. At that age I was reckless, dangerous and totally unconcerned about my future. I had nothing to lose and I bet these girls think they don’t either.
I fully imagine that they have little understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. To them this is a big adventure and they’re pushing hard against life’s boundaries to see what happens only now it’s too late to turn back. They’ve slipped the lipstick in their pockets and now they just have to walk out the door. I know comparing shoplifting makeup to treason may seem a weak comparison, but in the mind of a 15-year-old who understands neither the impact or the true consequences of their actions, I think it’s a decent parallel.
So what happens now? The response by Scotland Yard has been lazy to say the least. We waited too long to alert authorities in Turkey and I can’t help but wonder if this was intentional? Do we want these girls back? What happens when we find them? Will they be put in jail or slapped on the wrist? They have left the country of their birth to fight against it, so how can they return? Why haven’t we done more to bring them back? How, as unaccompanied minors, were they allowed to leave in the first place and where the hell did their parents think they were going?
There are a hell of a lot of questions that need answering, but I still struggle to see these girls as criminals. I see them as fantasist children trying on their big-girl pants. I see them as of victims of their own confusion and hormones. I see them as incredibly poor decision makers, like all teenage girls are. But I have trouble holding them wholly responsible for anything. I want to hear more from the parents and I really want to hear from the girls themselves. So let’s try a little harder to bring them back, let’s not make an example of them by letting them die. If these girls were white and heading to Russia, for example, I can’t help but feel our response would be more urgent.
The only way for us to help to save future young, impressionable women from the same fate is to learn from those whom have already been impressed upon. What were these girls promised? Love? Acceptance? Freedom? Most probably, and isn’t that what we all wanted at 15?