Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Boston and Columbine

"I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them."

That's Tamerlan Tsarnaev's oft quoted remarks in the recent articles on the Boston Marathon bombings. It won't be surprising if that sentence will spark an entire cottage industry of apologists, amateur psychoanalysts, etc., asking "what went wrong" and "how society has failed them," which is exactly what Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen President, suggests:
However, any attempt to connect the brothers to Chechnya is in vain, Kadyrov continued. The boys were raised in the United States, and therefore their beliefs were formed there and not in Chechnya, he said.
"It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America,"
And as noted by Jean-François Ratelle, a post-doctoral researcher at George Washington University and an expert in Chechen radicalism:
He said the brothers seemed to be not well integrated into American society, especially Tamerlan. Often, he said, young people turn to radical Islam to find answers or a society and peer network that accepts them.
Ultimately, of course, Tom Brokaw:
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw strongly suggested Sunday that America is partly to blame for the gruesome terrorists attacks in Boston, because the young, Muslim men involved may have felt “alienated” and angry over U.S. drone strikes on “innocent civilians” in Muslim countries abroad.
We have seen this kind of "questions" before. Back in 1999. In Columbine.

Keep in mind, however, I am not arguing here that these two incidents are basically the same. Two points. First, I propose that we need to dig in very carefully before attributing any certain factor as the main cause of this terrible event. This will help us to avoid implementing a bad responses (e.g. stereotyping loners as potential killers) or taking an easy way out that does not, in the end, tell us anything about what motivated the bombers (e.g. blaming society).

Second, even though Columbine happened more than a decade ago, there are still, surprisingly, important nuggets to be gleaned from that case that could provide interesting contexts/patterns that could apply to this case.

For instance, remember the isolated goth, trench-coat mafia? Turns out, however, that was not the case. As Dave Cullen noted in his excellent book, Columbine, the two killers were two good students with lots of friends:
Eric and Dylan had very active social calendars, and far more friends than the average adolescent. They fit in with a whole thriving subculture.
Back to the Boston Marathon bombers.

Here are several testimonials:
Those who remember him at the school suggest he was well integrated in its diverse community. "[Dzhokhar] wasn't 'them'. He was 'us'. He was Cambridge," Andrea Kramer – whose son studied with Dzhokhar – told the Wall Street Journal.
"He was a familiar part of the community, he didn't isolate himself," said former classmate Rebecca Mazur. 
Those who trained with Tamerlan, a talented young boxer known to them as "Tom", seemed as surprised as his brother's friends were that he had emerged as prime suspect in the bombing.
"In the ring, he could knock a man out with one punch,'' Gene McCarthy, founder of the Somerville Boxing Club, told the Boston Globe. "But when he sat at a piano, he could play classical music like you wouldn't believe. The Tom I knew was a sweetheart.''
Albrecht Ammon, 18, who lived directly below the flat shared by the brothers, said he recently saw Tamerlan in a pizzeria, where they argued about religion and US foreign policy. Tsarnaev argued that many US wars are based on the Bible, used as "an excuse for invading other countries". But even then he added he had nothing against the American people. 
Granted, these testimonials are not ultimate, bullet-proof evidence, but what we have here is a complex, nuanced picture about the bombers. Mass killers and murderers are not necessarily isolated, crazy misfits that cannot blend in the society. They might isolate themselves, but it is more of a matter of choice, as in Columbine:
"The impression I always got from them was they kind of wanted to be outcasts," another classmate said. "It wasn't that they were labeled that way. It's what they chose to be."
Columbine can also shed some lights about the relationship between the two killers. In Columbine, it was noted that Eric Harris was the psychopathic mastermind of the killing, with Dylan Klebold joining in as an accomplice, under the strong influence of Harris. Klebold was a follower type, doing whatever Harris wanted, most likely because he didn't want to lose his best friend. Meantime, in Boston:
"My feeling is that the reason that Jahar was involved has entirely to do with his brother ... Given that his brother essentially raised him, I think this is an awful case of evil being perpetuated because of the trust and love Jahar had for his brother."
"In what I've seen of their personalities, the brain behind this is the older brother," Vasquez said. "When it comes to the two of them, he would lead and the little brother followed."
Therefore, while it is tempting to ascribe some societal motive on the bombers, we probably would be better off looking at an incident with similar patterns -- Columbine -- in order to really understand what made these two brothers make their fateful choice on April 15, 2013.

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