Masha Gessen’s ‘The Brothers’: Do We Need to ‘Understand’ the Boston Marathon Bombers?

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In the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was perhaps the biggest media patsy I’ve ever been in my life. I was listening in to police scanners, OMG-ing without context into Twitter, finding my eyes glaze over from an excess of TV, radio, and Internet. I was dumbly captivated by the entire saga, from the brutality of the bombing itself to the authoritarian-seeming manhunt for the suspects, and that final agonizing siege of a bloody backyard boat where Dzokhar Tsarnaev lay, injured and writing a manifesto.

Since then, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, in an effort to understand both what happened and my own reaction. I read Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone deep dive into Dzokhar’s social life, the Boston Globe’s somewhat moralistic coverage of the Tsarnaev family’s “fall,” and now, Masha Gessen’s thoroughly-reported book on the subject. ThoughThe Brothers: The Road to An American Tragedy hit bookshelves today, it has already been both praised and criticized for being sympathetic to the titular subjects. The Tsarnaev brothers appear in her account almost like pawns in a vast international web, rather than brutal actors who knowingly planted bombs mere feet away from small children.

Gessen’s subject matter is essentially the combination of factors that mesmerized me so much during those days in Boston. The crime united spectators in search of a common enemy, and that enemy turned out to be one of us. These guys were assumed to be the kind of immigrant kids who made good in America and embraced their adopted country, yet the fear they sowed led to the imposition of unprecedented martial law in a major city. And still their friends and acquaintances could not believe — still can’t believe — they were capable.

Because of these contradictions, the narrative around the Marathon bombing has fissured. On one side is coverage that focuses on the victims’ innocence, law enforcement’s heroism, and the carnage inflicted by the brothers. On the other is an account like Gessen’s, which compels us to see the story as part of a much bigger global conflict. This conflict includes America’s post-9/11 War on Terror, the way the United States has responded to terrorism on its shores by harping on a “radicalization” narrative that rarely fits the facts, even the war Russia waged on ethnic Chechens and others. But more than that, this ongoing conflict includes the fact that the American Dream often remains out of reach for immigrants, leading to alienation and even violence. As a Russian immigrant who landed in Boston herself, and a journalist who covered the war in Chechnya, Gessen is an ideal person to contextualize much of this story, even if her conclusions make us uncomfortable (and possibly elide too much of the individual responsibility the brothers bear for their actions.)

Most importantly for the historical record, The Brothers relentlessly observes an overreach of power in response to the bombings. Gessen details casual abuses and lies from the FBI and local authorities that led both to the mysterious death — at the hands of agents — of Ibragim Todashev, an associate of the Tsarnaev’s, as well as a number of strange discrepancies in the “official” story that have led to the blossoming of a thousand conspiracy theories. Gessen dismisses most, but implicitly endorses one such theory: Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a FBI informant, or was in the process of becoming one, when he “went rogue.” Yet at the same time, Gessen’s reporting mostly dispatches with the idea that Tamerlan was schizophrenic, or that he was brainwashed or incited by radical clerics during his time in Dagestan.

The split in media coverage and public reaction to the bombing parallels what Gessen describes as a schism that happened in the minds of almost everyone who knew the brothers. When they saw those photos, many thought that someone who looked like their friend or former student was implicated, or that Dzokhar was totally under his brother’s thumb. A third split exists in the minds of terrorists themselves, whom she says are much more rationally motivated than is commonly believed: “On one track, life goes on exactly as before; on the other, he is preparing for the event that will disrupt his life or even end it,” she writes. What they have in common isn’t instability or anger, but tolerance for risk and violence. For the Tsarnaevs, this latter quality emerges the war-torn regions the family came from; in Gessen’s telling, a story of constant uprooting so bleak and depressing, it begins to wear on the reader. She makes it clear that terrorists are often immigrant, secular young men denied political agency who want to stand out somehow. As she told NPR:

“But the thing about international Islamic terrorism as we imagine it is that it’s an opportunity for somebody who doesn’t belong to engage and claim greatness. I mean, this is a young man who had been brought up to think that he was going to be great, that he was going to do something that really mattered. And he was a nobody. And nobody feels as much like a nobody as an immigrant does. And you can engage with a great power like the United States simply by throwing a bomb. You can declare war on the United States. And the amazing thing about it is that the United States will accept the declaration of war.”

How the bombing plan was conceived, formed, carried out all remains obscured, known most likely only to Dzokhar Tsarnaev himself. Gessen’s narrative doesn’t explain what happened over those last few months before the bombing. We don’t have, in other words, what we want most: an anatomy of the brothers’ moral failing. And we may not ever have that answer, particularly given the intense security and secrecy surrounding Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s prison stay. But what we do have, thanks to The Brothers, is an often painful account of our system’s moral failings, the ways in which we’re inhospitable to those seeking asylum on our shores, and the ways our law enforcement acts in a manner as draconian as law enforcement was in the strife-torn places they fled. That may not be the story we’re looking for, but it is a story we very much need.