Dostoevsky once wrote that, “While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” To assume mere insanity or sadism as the driving causes is to grossly oversimplify what is in reality a very complex and far from understood phenomenon.
In considering the perpetrators of last week’s Boston bombing, it is easy to label the two as extremists with fundamentalist ties and an apparent hatred of America, but in reality comprehending how such thoughts and motives are formed proves far more difficult.
At this point, the evidence suggests that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did not arrive in the United States as children with underlying hatred toward this country nor a desire to seek its destruction. Rather, Dzhokhar, the younger and surviving brother, appears to have been a relatively well-adjusted and fun-loving teen, recently receiving his U.S. citizenship, while Tamerlan had been an aspiring boxer, hoping to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics.
Tamerlan’s more recent interest in extremist activity certainly played a major role in the decision to carry out the bombing, but it is also important to understand what caused that inclination. Several thoughts may help shed some light on this case.
First, years of work by social scientists have brought us closer to understanding the terrorist mindset, yet simultaneously reinforced the fact that it is virtually impossible to construct a comprehensive terrorist profile. We tend to think of mostly young, poor or underemployed males, possibly with mental instability or outcasts of society.
Yet, history paints a very different picture. Terrorists have been both male and female, educated or not, wealthy or poor, religious or nonreligious. Some have shown psychological problems, while many are well-adjusted, active members of society. We should not forget that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated, middle class men with families. Certainly religion or ideology plays a major role in becoming an active terrorist, yet this does not explain the millions of people with similar beliefs who opt not to engage in such behavior.
For each person choosing the path of terrorism (a term not used by such individuals, who instead believe they are freedom fighters or political activists), there is a very unique recipe that drives such actions. It is the complex combination of early life experiences, current life situations and exposure to a particular ideology that will ultimately form (or not form) such a mindset. Only by approaching the Boston bombers from this angle can we even get close to understanding why they, and others, would commit such heinous acts.
While making such an assessment of the Tsarnaev brothers would take much more space than this article allows, two factors can quite confidently be considered. First, the effect of ethnic ties in the self-identification of immigrants to another country, and secondly (as I will discuss next week), growing disillusionment with, or marginalization from, the society in which they live.
The Tsarnaev brothers, having only childhood memories of their homeland and likely understanding little about the struggles there, are what is known as second-generation migrants. Such individuals, seeking to solidify an identity in a strange country, often take on an adherence to the homeland no less potent than that of their parents. In this particular case, the brothers will have had little or no actual memories of the struggles in Chechnya (from which they find their ethnic origin) over the last two decades, but will certainly identify with them on a personal level.
For decades the Chechen people, considering themselves ethnically and religiously removed from the rest of Russia, have sought independence. Over 400,000 Chechens were forced out of the country by Stalin during his rule, and more recently the battle for independence has been fierce and bloody. Forced largely into the mountainous terrain of the Caucasus region, Chechen rebels have undertaken a number of high profile attacks on Russia, including the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the 2004 Beslan school massacre, two plane bombings in that same year, and the 2010 metro bombings. Hundreds were killed in the attacks.
It is likely that the brothers, in some vague and perhaps misguided way, and in an attempt to embrace their ethnic and cultural heritage, supported the cause of the Chechens. This is evident in Tamerlan’s desire not to represent Russia as an Olympic boxer.
Historically, the Chechen rebels have not opposed the United States in a major way; their fight has been one more of opposition to Soviet, and now Russian control. Yet, as the animosity between Chechnya and Russia has subsided in recent years, the movement has turned its attention more toward its Islamic disposition, strengthening ties with other Islamic groups around the world such as al Qaeda. This means the Chechen movement has taken on a more amorphous and general opposition to all things considered anti-Muslim, evident in their support of al Qaeda and Taliban troops fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Almost certainly, this transition in the objectives of the Chechen movement will have informed the ideas of the Tsarnaev brothers as they sought to solidify their own identities. Exposure to radical Islamic ideas, increasingly embraced by the Chechen movement, is a more likely factor in the bombings than any ethnic struggle faced by the Chechen people.
Yet, this is only one of many factors that turned two seemingly stable and adjusted young men into killers. Next week, I will consider a second factor: the role of American society in forming the views of one classified as an extremist or a terrorist.