From Chechnya to Boston: Tracing the Tsarnaev brothers’ motivations

Vanity Fair interviewed Masha Gessen, author of the new book, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy:

The events leading up to the marathon tragedy aside, to some extent the story of the Tsarnaev family is the story of many immigrant families to the United States. Every family’s particular set of circumstances is different, of course, but the Tsarnaevs shared with others an intense condition of dislocation. What do we know about this?

If I had a penny for every time I thought, in the process of writing this book, There but for the grace of God . . . I don’t mean that every immigrant is at risk of becoming a terrorist, but I do mean that the immigrant existence is precarious and the things that go wrong can seem so minor—until they add up to tragedy. If Tamerlan’s dream of a boxing career had come true—and he was certainly gifted enough—the Boston bombing probably would not have happened. But I also have to wonder about smaller things. What if the Tsarnaevs’ sisters’ marriages had been happy? What if the beauty salon at which Zubeidat worked hadn’t fallen victim to the financial crisis? What if life had been just a little bit wealthier and just a little bit easier? Perhaps they would not have felt so much the outsiders.

The Tsarnaev case illuminates debates among experts about the path taken toward extremism—specifically, Islamic extremism—by some young people in Western countries, Europe as well as the United States. Can you tell us what this debate is about, and how the Tsarnaev story fits in?

Since 9/11 we have somehow come to accept the “radicalization” narrative, which basically holds that people become terrorists through a series of consecutive, traceable steps laid out for them by large international Islamic organizations. Reality is messier, and also smaller. First of all, radical beliefs are not a predictor of terrorist behavior: most people who hold radical beliefs never become terrorists, and some terrorists don’t hold radical beliefs. Second, this theory ignores the benefits of becoming a terrorist: it’s a shortcut to becoming a somebody, to belonging, perhaps even to becoming “great.” Look at the people who carried out the terrorist attacks of this past winter in Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen. What do they have in common with one another and with the Tsarnaev brothers? They come from marginalized immigrant existences. They see a chance not only to become a part of something and become somebody but also a chance to declare war on a great power. And the great power accepts that declaration, which is I think the shortsighted and tragic way in which the war on terror has contributed to the glamorization and aggrandizement of terror itself.

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