Masha Gessen
The Tsarnaev Brothers

On April 15, 2013, two immigrant brothers from the badlands of the North Caucasus, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, detonated two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, ripping the limbs off 16 and injuring about 250 others. Tamerlan, who looked like a Sicilian gigolo, died several days later after his younger brother, Dzhokhar, ran over him as they were fleeing the police. Dzhokhar, who looks like a cold-hearted angel, is now in prison. He is unlikely to come out alive.

Why did these boys decide to randomly murder and maim large numbers of innocent strangers? Did they even plant the bombs? If so, how did they go about it? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. Not even Masha Gessen knows with any certainty, for all her forensic thoroughness. 

Some look for simple answers in “radicalisation” or “romantic outlaw” scenarios. “So you’re one of those people who think social injustice is to blame,” an Islamic militant says to Gessen about Tamerlan, during a trip she makes to Dagestan to look into the boys’ background. “Why can’t you believe that he simply objected to US foreign policy and that’s why he did it?” Gessen, a Russian-speaking migrant to Boston who studied terrorism at Harvard, isn’t the sort of woman to be content with “believing” anything. Her investigative techniques are exhaustive, unrelenting. In any case, while millions of Americans object to US foreign policy, few choose to randomly kill strangers to show their displeasure. The answer to why and how the Tsarnaevs did it (if they did it) is going to be more complicated, requiring a lot of detailed storytelling – story upon story, in fact, describing their family’s failed lives in Boston, unravelling their roots in Soviet Central Asia – until something “jells”. Nothing quite does.

Although style is not Gessen’s strong point (she is no Helen Garner), she tells these stories with a certain journalistic flair that holds the attention. They are without exception dispiriting, sometimes frightening, particularly those dealing with the FBI’s successful campaign either to kill or imprison any Chechen in the US who knew the Tsarnaev brothers.

By the time of the bombing, 10 years after they were granted asylum in the US, the Tsarnaev family (the two brothers, their two sisters and their parents) were all profoundly disappointed with the way their lives had turned out. Although they had a comfortable place to live with a Russian-speaking landlady in a rapidly gentrifying part of the city, nothing was as they’d dreamt it would be. They were underachieving nobodies. Tamerlan did not succeed in joining the US Olympic boxing team, as everyone had been sure he would, his father fixed “clunkers” in the street in front of the house, his mother’s attempt to be a beautician went nowhere and she was arrested for shoplifting, while his sisters ended up with abusive partners. Although both boys went to a good school, Dzhokhar, once described as “a sweet weightless cloud” of a boy, ended up at a second-rate university in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, where he mostly dealt and smoked pot. 

In Gessen’s terms, the Tsarnaevs had all failed “to inhabit the same story as the people among whom they now live[d]”. A successful immigrant knows when to choose pragmatism over tradition. The Tsarnaevs had no idea. To put it another way, after 10 years in America the boys were still looking for a homeland. 

The failure to belong here does not, of course, explain everything any more than the social injustice or radicalisation stories do – many Australians fail to “inhabit” the Christian or Anzac stories, yet are not tempted to kill random strangers en masse as a result. All the same, it appears to be a necessary element in the formation of the terrorist which, as Gessen points out, is what you’re called if you’re a mass-murdering Muslim. An ordinary American intent on shooting up a classroom or a supermarket is just a killer. James Holmes, who shot dead 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, and injured 70 others, was never described as a terrorist, but Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood murderer, quickly was. When the bombers’ mother calls the “US authorities” the true “terrorists”, she’s missing the point.

Terrorists are not depressed or emotionally disturbed, according to Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist from the George Washington University specialising in the field. Nor are they crazed fanatics: “Their primary shared characteristic is their normalcy.” Teams from the University of Michigan and the University of Quebec researching the psychology of martyrs in particular have concluded that young men willing to kill randomly for a cause tend to be strongly motivated, devoted to a small, family-like unit of friends, and in possession of an unshakable belief in something that matters more than their individual lives – a promised land, for instance, whether an earthly abode (a caliphate, the Tamils’ Eelam) or a place in paradise.

While neither of the Tsarnaev brothers, let alone anyone else in their family, showed any deep interest in Islam, jihad does provide hope for those “unmoored from millennial traditions and cultures”, now flailing about in search of an admired role to play in society. It offers the promise of great achievements for the underachieving, as did, presumably, armed struggle for some Catholics in Northern Ireland. Crucially, it provides a homeland. Tamerlan began to show an interest in jihad during a visit to the Caucasus immediately before the bombing. In Chechen families the older brother’s authority is unquestionable. Dzhokhar would have done Tamerlan’s bidding without a second thought.

Gessen examines several of the current conspiracy theories about the bombings, the most plausible involving Putin’s secret police, but she clearly comes down on the side of the Tsarnaevs’ guilt. However, for all her learning, extensive fieldwork and intellectual acumen, even Gessen cannot fully explain the leap some young men make from devotion to a cause to the random killing of innocents. Their desire for glory in their true homeland is understandable. The depth of their hatred remains a mystery.  PP

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Masha Gessen, The Tsarnaev Brothers". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: PP