Early days, yet and a lot of speculation about motivation. Clearly the elder brother was deeply alienated from American society; the younger brother seems by all accounts to a pretty normal kid, well-liked and popular at his school. Attention will focus on Chechnya and on Islam, but what about the possibility that their turn to the violence of extremism was a response to alienation rather than its cause?
In reading about their background and from those who knew them, I’m intrigued by the similar profiles of Tamerlan and other perpetrators of mass violence (like Adam Lanza and James Holmes). Mark Juergensmayer has this to say of these “lone wolf terrorist attacks”:
Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where lonely, alienated individuals have raged against a society that they thought had abandoned them.
Juergensmayer has engaged in research on the relationship between religion and violence for many years and deserves close reading.
A lengthy piece from AP gives background to the two men.
Some thoughtful, preliminary reflections on the two men:
From Ludger Viefhuis-Bailey, who write a book on Columbine:
The Tsarnaevs’ tweets and social media posts make the brothers appear as aimless young men, failing in their professional and academic lives, fascinated by violent sports, saddled with domestic violence, and confused about their place in American culture and society. Instead of being sleeper cells acting out an Islamic terror agenda, the bombers seem more like the killers of Columbine.
Anne Appelbaum sees parallels between the Tsarnaevs’ and perpetrators of bombings in Europe:
Although very little has been confirmed, the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers looks less like that of hardened, trained terrorists and far more closely resembles the second-generation European Muslims who staged bombings in Madrid, London and other European cities. Educated and brought up in Europe, these young men nevertheless felt out of place in Europe. Unable to integrate, some turned toward a half-remembered, half-mythological homeland in search of a firmer, fiercer identity. Often they did so with the help of a radical cleric like the one the Tsarnaev brothers may have known. “I do not have a single American friend,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly said of himself. That’s the kind of statement that might have been made by a young Pakistani living in Coventry, or a young Algerian living in Paris.
David Remnick writes of the Tsarnaev family:
When Anzor [the young mens’ father] fell sick, a few years ago, he resolved to return to the Caucasus; he could not imagine dying in America. He had travelled halfway around the world from the harrowed land of his ancestors, but something had drawn him back. The American dream wasn’t for everyone. What they could not anticipate was the abysmal fate of their sons, lives destroyed in a terror of their own making. The digital era allows no asylum from extremism, let alone from the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men. A decade in America already, I want out.
When we saw those pictures on Thursday it wasn’t clear there would be a foreign connection. To me, frankly, they looked like frat guys. It even occurred to me whether the perpetrators had consciously put on this sort of get up to disguise themselves. Knowing what we know now, that seems unlikely. But when I did see those pictures and see what looked more like frat kids than jihadis or white supremacists the thought that came to mind to me was Columbine — no clear ideology just the hard underlying precipitate of young male alienation, cockiness and aggression.
However that may be, and speaking in general as opposed to about this particular case, I don’t think we should see these as mutually exclusive explanations. Particularly in America and with young men like this I think these ideologies are something more like sheaths into which the same young unattached male toxicity is poured.
Is alienation from society combined with aggression more responsible for the Tsarnaevs’ actions than Islam? It’s interesting that reports from Muslims in Cambridge suggest Tamerlan was a problem for the local Muslim community.