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Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev: What were they thinking?

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen suggests that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have seen terrorism as 'a shortcut to greatness.' As a terrorist, 'You can go from being a nobody to declaring war on a great country,' says Gessen.

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    This photo of Dzhokhar (l.) and Tamerlan (r.) Tsarnaev was released through the FBI website in April 2013.
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As the punishment phase in the Boston Marathon bombing trial begins this week, we’re expected to hear allegations of brainwashing and accusations of complicity.

Soon, we’ll have a punishment – execution or life in prison – for convicted bomber Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev. But it won’t be enough to close this case, argues Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, author of the extraordinary new book The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.

Gessen, who traveled the globe in search of the secrets of the Tsarnaev family, has produced both a gripping narrative and a stunning piece of investigative journalism. She unravels the history of the family in Soviet Russia – “if their lives weren’t exactly hell, they came from hell” – and tracks their steps through Cambridge, Mass., and to the Boston Marathon just two years ago.

The book loses steam as Gessen tackles the government’s conventional wisdom about terrorism, and her hints at a FBI coverup are quite a stretch. At her best, though, Gessen gives us the human side to the story of two young men who must be understood as more than monsters, and she persuasively argues that we deserve more answers than we’ve gotten.

In an interview, Gessen (who migrated from Russia herself) talks about the challenges facing immigrants to the US, a mysterious journey by the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the ultimate fate of these two brothers.
 
Q: What should we understand about the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers back in the Soviet Union, where they came from Chechen roots?
 
If their lives weren’t exactly hell, they came from hell. A central part of their story is one of dislocation. It was important for me to write their story of moving around and never feeling quite at home.

Their pain is something that is real to them – the deportation and the absolute hell that their parents survived and the miracle of that survival.
 
Q: Things started going poorly right away once the family made it to the US. What happened?
 
They get here right after 9/11, and our relationship with Russia changed at that point.

Many of us don’t remember that Russia was able to instantly reframe its war in Chechnya  as a war against international terrorism. Russia has been able to get away with a lot within that new frame and position itself as an ally in the war on terror.

Imagine yourself fleeing a country where you have always been a second-class citizen, and it’s just been a question whether you were the object of shelling or constant discrimination and marginalization. Imagine fleeing to a country where things are supposed to be different, and while you were en route, these countries decided they would be allies and the war you were fleeing was their common cause.
 
Q: How did being new immigrants complicate this picture?
 
It’s hard to get your bearings as an immigrant. I remember from my experience that you’re optimistic and primed to see things in a wonderful light, but there are things to which you’re sensitive.

One thing they were extremely sensitive to is being assumed to be criminals because they’re Muslim. They’d see that through people’s remarks.
 
Q: You came to the US in 1981 at the age of 14 when the Soviet Union allowed some Jewish families to emigrate. How do you compare your experience to that of the Tsarnaevs?
 
I came from a privileged background by Soviet standards to a privileged US community. I don’t think it’s a straight parallel. But at the same time, having been a Russian teenage immigrant in the Boston area, it told me which questions to ask of those who’d known him and the family in Boston and had helped them.

And there are certain similarities when you come here to the American high school system and culture. You’re expected to have an intelligible identity. That’s a really hard thing for someone to comes from a marginalized background to grasp and own.

Q: You went to the Russian republican of Dagestan in search of details about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who spent 6 months there in 2012. There’s a lot of talk that he was “radicalized” there. What did you find?
 
Other reporters have recognized that was a very important moment in his life and tried to find evidence that he was radicalized there. That’s part of a concept that’s developed about terrorists over the past dozen years: of being conscripted by an international organization and going through the process of taking in more radical ideas and becoming a terrorist.

It’s a model that doesn’t work and isn’t borne out by how terrorists are made. There’s no evidence that he was linked in any significant way to a larger organization, and terrorism scholars tell us radical beliefs are not a predictor of terrorist behavior.

Even those who speak out in favor of violent behavior do not necessarily engage in violent behavior. And some terrorists don’t hold radical beliefs or only hold them superficially.
 
Q: What about the idea that some terrorists are mentally ill, a theory that’s gotten traction regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev?
 
There's a focus on psychopathy and schizophrenia, and it’s not useful. It’s not an explanation, and it isn’t linked to anything we know about terrorism.
Terrorism scholars have been telling us that the one distinguishing characteristic of terrorists is that they are normal.
 
Q: What do you think Tamerlan encountered when he was abroad?
 
What happened to him was a radical experience of belonging, and that has a lot more to do with why people become terrorists.

He went there, he found his people. He found young men like him that he could listen to. He felt comfortable and at home and accepted, probably for the first time in his life.

That’s huge, and the experience of losing that when he had to go back to the United States was probably devastating. This had a lot to do with his decision to blow up the marathon.
 
Q: What did the brothers want to see happen when they set off the bombs?
 
My sense of their ultimate goal was that they wanted to become great.

You can frame it in terms of martyrdom. You look at Jahar’s notes scribbled on the side of the boat where he hid. He says that Allah has different plans for different people, and the plan for his brother was to make him a martyr.

You see all of it in that note. You see the belonging rhetoric, and the concept that “you hurt one of us, you hurt us all.” You see the desire to have a meaningful role and to be heard, to become somebody.

The lure of terrorism is this opportunity to belong to something larger, to have meaning and greatness. It’s like a shortcut to greatness. You can go from being a nobody to declaring war on a great country.
 
Q: You suggest a coverup regarding the government’s connections to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and you point out that we still don’t know where the brothers made their bombs or fully understand why they launched the attack. What does this tell you?
 
The problem with the FBI is that its investigation is blatantly incomplete. They’re allowed to get away with saying “We don’t know.”

The American justice system is not created for the purpose of finding out what happened. Its not the jury’s or judge’s job. It’s the job of other agencies to tell us what happened, and there isn’t enough conversation about that.

There’s this inclination to accept closure from the trial. But we ought to investigate what happened, and not use the justice system to get to the bottom of things.
 
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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