The Road to Terror

The Brothersby Masha Gessen

Riverhead Books. 288p $27.95

Masha Gessen has written a thought-provoking and disturbing book about the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and those deemed responsible, the brothers Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev. This topic must have been particularly compelling for her as someone who came to the Boston area from the Soviet Union as a girl and upon adulthood spent 20 years as a journalist covering post-Communist Russia, with special attention to the violence in the Caucasus.

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Gessen provides sufficient context and explanation to allow readers to understand why the Tsarnaevs became terrorists. Her insights will likely be disturbing: she doubts that Tamerlan became radicalized and that radicalization was even necessary. Instead, she counters that young men who oppose the policies of the state in which they live and whom promises and opportunities have passed by can decide to achieve the “greatness” that is elsewhere eluding them through terrorism.

In telling the Tsarnaevs’ story, Gessen stresses the upheaval that both they and their parents experienced. Although they met in Siberia, their mother, Zubeidat, was from Dagestan and the father, Anzor, was an ethnic Chechen who had grown up in Kyrgyzstan, to which Stalin had deported his people. After marrying, Anzor and Zubeidat wandered, trying to find a place that was suitable for earning a living and raising a family. In the collapsing Soviet Union, this search was not easy. Moving to Chechnya at the most inopportune time—just prior to the outbreak of conflict between that breakaway region and Russia—made financial and personal security difficult. Although they fled the war in its opening stage for Kyrgyzstan, the Tsarnaevs’ goal was to get to the United States. With the help of some friends and relatives, they arrived in Massachusetts. Their timing again was very poor. Anzor and Zubeidat came to the United States in early 2002, not the best time to be Muslim in America.

While their tale has elements of kindness from both Americans and recent Chechen immigrants, the Tsarnaevs struggled in Cambridge. They were economically marginalized and culturally different. While the children seemed popular at school, they were not achievers. Both parents and children were trapped at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder with no way up or out. Initially, music or boxing might have been Tamerlan’s ticket, while easygoing Jahar seems never to have had much ambition, although he did win a college scholarship. Certainly their upbringing and the structural inequality in today’s United States contributed to their lack of opportunities, but neither of these factors can fully account for their terrible choice. Many young men endure similar hardships without resorting to such violence.

In seeking to understand their motivations, the account becomes disconcerting. Gessen notes that many Caucasians see parallels between American and Russian treatment of minorities; these similarities are unnerving, given the levels of authoritarianism in Russia today. To some observers, the American conduct of the war on terror has led to the violation of the civil rights of many American citizens and residents and should cause U.S. citizens and their friends to worry deeply about its hidden costs. Also distressing is the ease with which the brothers pulled off their act of terror. According to their friends, Tamerlan and Jahar behaved normally in the days leading up to the bombing and in its immediate aftermath. They had no outward angst, worries or displays of conscience. Most readers will likely have no sympathy for them. Their friends and relatives, however, in disbelief sought other answers.

Although Gessen rejects the brothers’ supporters’ preferred explanation for the bombing, her version has no heroes and a troubling conclusion. She asserts that officials handled Jahar’s friends—many of them Muslim immigrants—extremely poorly, making them write confessions that were inaccurate and contradictory. She also notes the brutality with which F.B.I. agents treated an old friend of Tamerlan, Ibragim Todashev, killing him during an interrogation in Florida. Most disturbingly, Gessen argues that U.S. law enforcement is directly implicated in the horror of April 15, 2013.

Although she recognizes Todashev’s fearsome reputation, which could have caused agents to overreact during the questioning, Gessen suggests that killing a man who might have information about both the terror attack and another unsolved triple homicide makes no sense, unless he had to be silenced.

This contention supports her claim that during the manhunt the F.B.I. was trying to capture the brothers before other law enforcement partners could reach them because agents had been working with the Tsarnaevs and either helped them assemble the bombs or gave them the deadly pressure cookers. Apparently, the defense attorneys at Jahar’s trial were not able to convince jurors of Gessen’s conclusions or other accounts that might excuse the brothers.

Gessen’s story leaves the reader with enormous sadness, about the senseless violence and destruction of so many lives, as well as the hopelessness of some immigrant and American men living with little ambition, skill or hope in urban America (think also of Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore, Md.).

While many readers will reject the idea that the F.B.I. could have been involved in this horror, that a highly reputable journalist could follow the leads and reach that conclusion must give pause.

Having engaged in questionable previous behavior, the United States has tarnished its reputation, making others see only the evil in American policy and believe in its official duplicity, which is used to justify more violence directed at the United States. The story of the brothers, then, particularly in the context of 2015, is a story about brutality and alienation as well as a cautionary tale regarding the need to promote opportunity among urban young men and to strengthen the rule of law at home so that police agencies have unimpeachable reputations, not only among those who don’t encounter them directly, but in the eyes of all.

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