Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thoughts on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Although I generally have no interest in legal proceedings and find lawyers, including most politicians, slightly repugnant, major criminal trials in the U.S. sometimes provide a window into American society through which one may see its strengths and weaknesses. The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial seems to display some of the characteristics of Americans that have made them reviled within those pockets of the world where people feel marginalized.

From the information that I'm aware of, it appears that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was significantly Americanized after his family moved to the U.S. in 2002, and his elder brother, Tamerlan, somewhat less so. The main fact that stands out to me is that his family did not adjust well to life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His parents were unable to succeed financially and eventually moved away to Dagestan. Tamerlan did not have the boxing career that he had hoped for and subsequently took a greater interest in Islam. On the surface Dzhokhar seemed relatively well adjusted, but apparently he also had little hope of making a satisfactory life for himself in the U.S. As a college student he was mounting up enormous debts that he could not realistically expect to repay, and he was doing poorly academically.

All of the important facts in the case seem to have been uncovered shortly after Dzhokhar's arrest. The bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon involved only the Tsarnaev brothers and were not part of a broader terrorist plot. The psychological aspects of the Tsarnaevs don't seem particularly complex either. They resented Americans because they saw themselves as economically doomed and because they thought that many American actions were an affront to Islam. These are both plausible claims, yet the brothers might well have become good citizens if only they had found tracks to successful careers. Basically they were somewhat generic aggressive young males who chose violence when they came to see that as their last resort and as a method of retaliation. Similar scenarios have been played out worldwide by frustrated young men throughout history.

While this was a heinous crime, I have found the public response reflective of a country that cares little for introspection. I don't think the court or the media took any interest in Dzhokhar's background and psychological makeup even though these are all that are needed to fully understand the nature of the crime. Rather, the emphasis recently has been on whether Dzhokhar has shown sufficient remorse to warrant a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Whatever narrative he may have has been ignored in favor of the emotions of his aggrieved victims. The trial played into the cookie-cutter terrorism narrative that we have been living with since 9/11 and showed no signs of deviating from the script.

It is apparent to me that there is little appetite in the U.S. for discussing the consequences of America's botched foreign policy in the Middle East, and there is certainly no interest in understanding the nuances of the thoughts of people like the Tsarnaev brothers. In Boston, a region populated by Irish-Americans who until recently cheerfully funded IRA terrorism in the U.K., there exists an unspoken hypocrisy regarding the Tsarnaevs. Apparently injuring or killing innocents in England is not a problem, but Islamic Americans from the former U.S.S.R. are cold and heartless when they harm Bostonians. Up until the mid-twentieth century, Irish-Americans were themselves subject to low status and social disapproval, and their current indifference to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may reflect the lost memory of their own humble pasts. Though I don't celebrate anything about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I am struck in this case by America's unwillingness to reflect on the grievances that it has caused in the world.


  1. Agree that seldom is the big picture ever looked at and considered. And I also was disheartened to imagine that a 21 years old depiction of remorse was going to be the decider. The mob mentality seemed certainly in play for this poor soul. I actually thought his lawyers should have played that angle and made him do the 'remorseful bit' to the max. Might have helped him.

    1. Yes, although I didn't follow this closely, it seemed that the defense strategy was weak and he didn't even go along with it, making it even less effective. Another thing is that this is going to drag out for a long time because of the legal system, which is stupid when you consider how simple the case is. It gets me that Dzhokhar is so obviously a kid, with a lot of that innocence, yet the press and the jury immediately painted him a loathsome incarnation of evil, as if following a script written by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld - three who in a fair world would themselves be tried for war crimes.