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Last month, US forces launched a drone strike in Yemen that reportedly killed two Americans – Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric known for his jihadist views, and Samir Khan, editor of an English-language al-Qaeda propaganda publication.

I never met either man but I have a connection to Khan, who died aged 25. Although I was born a generation before him, Khan and I are both graduates of W. Tresper Clarke, a state high school in the Long Island suburbs of New York City. According to some press reports, he even wrote for The Vanguard, the school newspaper I edited during the 1970s.

Like some of you, no doubt, this has led me to wonder: what’s a nice Jewish boy like me doing in a column like this? How could the same quiet middle-class area that produced the US news editor of the FT, a space-shuttle astronaut, various well-regarded oncologists and a slew of New York City police officers also spawn a key figure in a Middle Eastern terror group?

It’s no exaggeration to say that this kind of thing would have been virtually impossible during my school days. But that is not because Khan – who migrated to the US age seven from Saudi Arabia with his Pakistani parents – strikes me as a particularly unfamiliar figure. From what I have read, he brought a definite Long Island attitude to the world of al-Qaeda propaganda (which is to say he was sarcastic and given to idiomatic English slogans such as “Jihad 4 Eva”). I also don’t think that I have attended a school, worked at a job or waited at a bus stop where there wasn’t someone a little like Khan, a dark soul ready to tip over into insanity – be it literal, political, sexual or pharmaceutical.

The big difference during the 1970s was that the lunatic fringe was a lonely crowd. Khan by contrast, benefited from improved technology. Thanks to the internet, he could forge connections with small groups of like-minded people in far-flung places. While still in the US, he blogged his way into international jihadist prominence. Once in Yemen, he reportedly showed off his high-tech chops by bringing a new level of sophistication to the graphics of al-Qaeda’s online Inspire magazine.

To give you a sense of the difference between my era and Khan’s, it’s worth noting that I didn’t learn about computer graphics at Clarke, I was ostensibily taught typesetting. To get through the junior high school bit of the six-year Clarke experience, boys had to take four semesters of “industrial arts” – woodwork, metalwork, ceramics and printing. Girls in those less liberal times were taught home economics so they could cook and sew.

While taking print shop at Clarke, I also met my share of proto-Khans. Two of them were called Richie and Bruce, and on the first day or so of graphic arts class they set in motion one of the more memorable episodes of my academic career by dumping the entire contents of my California Job Case – the 89-compartment wooden box developed during the 19th century to store the moveable type used in letterpress printing – on to the floor of our classroom. Our teacher, no doubt fatigued by the prospect of spending the rest of his professional life teaching a dead trade to a student body populated by dead heads, instructed me to return these thousands of letters, characters and spacing materials to their proper places in my California Job Case.

This task took the rest of the semester, a period I spent avoiding eye contact with Richie and Bruce, in hope they would forget I was there, and listening to the two young men conduct an extraordinary colloquy. Like participants in a Platonic symposium, Richie and Bruce returned ceaselessly to one big question: if Bruce were locked in Richie’s garage with Richie’s German shepherd, could Bruce kill the dog with his bare hands?

Richie approached the subject with a cerebral, almost scientific, demeanour (I think he wanted to be in the Mafia). Bruce was a more creative thinker, if not an outright psycho, proposing various dog-execution strategies for Richie’s consideration. It’s possible that if someone had suggested they blow up a federal building, or persecute a religious or racial minority, they might have been just as turned on as Khan was by the thought of jihad. But in the end, I suspect that they mainly posed a risk to domesticated animals and nearby classmates.

We lived in a smaller, less-connected world back then, and therein lies a lesson. Give a kid a California Job Case, and he can waste a lot of time. Give a kid a computer, and he can meet any nut on the planet.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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