Boston bombing probe: What Tsarnaev's friends tell us about adolescents

The arrests of three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be a chance for adults to help young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as moral and legal obligations.

Charles Krupa / AP
Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston Field Office, departs after the arraignment of three college friends of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the federal courthouse in Boston Wednesday, May 1. Dias Kadyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov, and Robel Phillipos were arrested and charged with removing a backpack containing hollowed-out fireworks from Tsarnaev's dorm room.

As the public focuses on allegations that three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took his laptop and backpack containing fireworks out of his dorm room, many people may be asking, “What were they thinking?”

It’s an oft-repeated question when it comes to adolescent behavior. And yes, psychology experts say, 19 (the age of all four) can still be considered adolescent – with poor judgment, impulsivity, and sense of invulnerability all too common as they’re still developing.

The arrests of Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev, and Robel Phillipos can become a sort of  “teachable moment” – a chance for adults to realize the importance of helping young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as the moral and legal obligations they have to broader society when they are aware of people at risk of harming themselves or others.

“Often at that age, people do things inconsistent with what they know to be right or wrong ... [and] they show especially poor judgment when they are with their peers,” says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He’s not surprised the allegations include, for instance, that they collectively decided to throw out the backpack after discovering it contained fireworks that had been emptied of gunpowder.

Research has shown that when adolescents are with their peers, they “pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the potential rewards of a decision and not to the cost,” Professor Steinberg says. Often, he says, they don’t believe they’ll be caught, or they aren’t thinking about what the consequences could be if they are. 

An FBI affidavit says that the three friends, who at one point were all students at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, had seen images of Mr. Tsarnaev as a suspect in the bombing, had texted with him, and then put the backpack in the garbage “because they did not want Tsarnaev to get into trouble.” It does not specify what happened to the laptop. The FBI account also says Messrs. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov had heard Tsarnaev say a month before that he knew how to make a bomb.

The three suspects’ lawyers have denied the charges and said the young men didn’t know that their friend was one of the bomb suspects.

During adolescence and a search for identity, “friends become so important,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., and co-author of “Teenage as a Second Language.” When they found the backpack in Tsarnaev’s room, “their gut probably said, ‘Wow, this probably shouldn’t be in here.’... This was a friend who they knew,... everybody talked about him as a good kid, a good guy. I think they were really focusing more on the emotion and ... the connection that they had, at the expense of really understanding the ramifications of what they were doing.”

But the case could lead to more emphasis, at college orientations, for example, on the need to report if peers are involved in something of concern, Dr. Powell-Lunder says.

Kdyrbayev and Tazhayakov, charged with obstruction of justice, could be subject to up to five years in prison. Mr. Phillipos, charged with lying to investigators, could face eight years in prison.

How to treat crimes by young people is a dilemma for the legal system, Powell-Lunder says. “These young boys, I cringe to even call them men, may end up being the example, and hopefully other people will understand how serious this is,” she says.

Reports that Kadyrbayev’s car had a license plate reading “Terrorista #1” brings up the important role of parents, Powell-Lunder says.

According to Kadyrbayev’s lawyer, the plate was a gag gift from friends, and Powell-Lunder applauds the right of free speech in such matters. But “If I’m that parent, I would say ... take that license plate off your car right now. I’m not paying for your college if you don’t,” she says. “This is an alarm that we all need to step up.... Just because you send your kid off to college does not make them an adult.”

When it comes to ethics, there’s not enough education for young people about the concept of “complicity,” says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles.

Both teens and adults sometimes couch their action as a value, such as loyalty, but that’s “a moral excuse for passivity and avoiding involvement and conflict,” he says. “People pretend that ‘It’s my ethics,’ but it’s really just simply a self-interest.”

People should expand their sense of loyalty to realize who will be helped and who will be hurt by their decision to do or not do something, Mr. Josephson says. Teaching young people to think about that wide range of “stakeholders” is part of Character Counts!, a comprehensive character education program the Josephson Institute supports that has reached more than 8 million students in the United States.

“Moral obligations come with the situations we are presented with,” Josephson says, “and we have choices: We can either make things better, we can leave them the way they are, or sometimes we make things worse.”

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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