by Leslie Savage
As Revelstoke gears up to welcome Syrian refugees, a useful perspective is encompassed in a recent book about the Boston Marathon bombers titled The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy, by Masha Gessen, and in a review of the same penned by Gary Indiana in The London Review of Books (10 September, 2015).
Gessen, the author, is a Russian and American journalist who has recently published The Man Without a Face: The Rise and Fall of Vladimir Putin. She was a journalist in both Chechen wars, and for research travelled to Chechnya and Dagestan, the original homes (sort of) of the two brothers who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and seriously injured 260 others.
Gessen interviewed members of the Tsarnaev family and friends of the older brother Tamerlan, who died, aged 26, in the aftermath of the bombings. The younger brother Dzhokhar—often spelled Jahar in the Western media—was 19 in 2013. He was discovered hiding in an overturned boat in a Boston backyard, and is now on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, a state that executes convicted killers. His defence at trial rested solely on the notion that he had been seduced by his older brother into going along with the plan.
Jahar was about 7 when his family arrived in the USA, the last of a series of moves that echo desperation and disorientation. Escaping from war, the family moved, with eventually four children, from Kyrgyzestan to Novosibirsk in south central Russia; then to Kalmykia; back to Kyrgyzestan, then back to Chechnya; again back to Krygyzestan to escape the Russian bombing of Chechnya in 1994; to Dagestan (east of Georgia on the Caspian Sea); and finally, soon after 9/11, to the United States.
In the USA, the father Anzor found work as a freelance car mechanic; Zubeidat, the boys’ mother, worked in home care and later as a beautician. Both were ambitious for their children.. But Tamerlan, had lived in seven cities and attended even more schools. He graduated from high school, dropped out of community college, boxed, messed with keyboards, delivered pizzas and sold some marijuana. He married, but by 2013 lived on dope deals and welfare. His younger brother went to university, where he did well at first. But by his sophomore year he was hanging out with other immigrant Dartmouth students, selling dope, spending time smoking and eating.
Gessen argues that the family was isolated from mainstream America by poverty and disorientation; that the family members more or less alone provided identity and direction, despite the parents’ 2011 divorce and Anzor’s return to Dagestan—leaving Tamerlan as “head” of the family in a culture where this matters.
None were Muslim but in the broadest cultural sense of that being their background, although in 2009, Tamerlan and his mother started to study the Koran together. Tamerlan also started studying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “the Bible of anti-Semites everywhere.” And as Indiana puts it, “The Internet provided even more enticing forms of propaganda—lectures by the al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki and the like—and the opportunity to share festering resentments with thinkalikes all over the planet.”
So the inevitable question: Why did they do it? What made two disaffected but Americanized young men put shrapnel into pressure cookers to explode them on a Boston street where thousands were gathered to run in or watch a marathon race?
Much has been made of terrorist conspiracy theory, and Western security forces have devoted much time and many resources to tracking terrorist cells. Another theory is for the lone-wolf-maniac; stories about schizoid “voices” have circulated re Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Gessen presents an alternative explanation: it is about the ordinariness of the terrorist.
The ordinary terrorist, in this iteration, is not compelled particularly by deeply religious motives, and as ISIS videos show by member actions (despite extremist propaganda recruitment rhetoric) ISIS members may not even be Muslim of the mildest, let alone, very devout, persuasion. Not for the first time, thugs use religion to justify thuggery and recruit more of the same.
Gessen quotes Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack, (about a Palestinian suicide bomber and the people affected by his actions, on the reasons for the attack that kills the protagonist’s wife:
I think even the most seasoned terrorists really have no idea what has happened to them. And it can happen to anyone. Something clicks, somewhere in their subconscious, and they’re off . . . .
In the context of the 21st c. Middle East, where war, loss, grief, dislocation and involuntary residence in refugee camps creates an absence of economically viable life choices for millions of youth, it’s plausible that, as Khadra puts it,
the only way to get back what you’ve lost or to fix what you’ve screwed up—in other words, the only way to make something of your life—is to end it with a flourish: turn yourself into a giant firecracker in the middle of a school bus or launch yourself like a torpedo against an enemy tank.
Summing up are a few key points from these writers:
- the war on terror that started in Afghanistan and Iraq has degenerated into an attack against Western civil rights and the on infrastructures of Muslim nations;
- the war on terror does precisely what ISIS wants it to do: provoke Trumpish anti-Muslim sentiments that undermine the values of tolerance and acceptance of dissidence and difference that are central to Western values, even though not always present in some aspects of Western societies;
- the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy adds to the potential disaffection of youth.
This last point is critical. As Indiana points out,
As everyday existence becomes more punitive for all but the monied few, more and more frustrated, volatile individuals will seek each other out online, aggravate whatever lethal fairy tale suits their pathology, and, ultimately, transfer their rage from the screen world to the real one.
In Canada, we believe ourselves fortunate: health care and welfare systems that function, opportunities for those eager to work, and communities whose vision for global stability is strong. Yet young people from Canada have, too, gone off to join ISIS.
Gessen’s book, Indiana’s review, as well as Khadra’s writing, constitute a compelling argument to do exactly what the refugee group in Revelstoke is planning: welcome a family with ample resources, integrate them into the community as fast as possible, help them overcome if possible the deep scars of war and dislocation, and hope for the best.
Read more about the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 at [http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n17/gary-indiana/death-qualified].