Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why did the Tsarnaev brothers turn to terrorism?

Now that the dust has settled and the Tsarnaev brothers are no longer a threat, the question why? has taken center stage. Why did two men seek to wage such destruction against the country that had given them a home? These are the same questions that British officials were forced to ask in the aftermath of the July 7th bombings. To this day, the primary terrorism threat in the UK does not originate with foreign citizens, but rather with Britons who have rejected the UK's democratic plurality in favor of a violent, extremist interpretation of Sunni Islamism. 

I believe that it's possible to draw number of observations about what can motivate citizens/long-time residents to turn so brutally against their host countries. For me, there are four progressive factors that lead to homegrown extremism.

1) Culture Shock

For those entering a new country or being brought up in a family which distances itself from broader social engagement, a multitude of challenges can arise. Central amongst these is the need to adapt to accepted society. Whether it be different sports, varied social attitudes or contrasting behavioral norms, escaping social exclusion can be a challenge. Consider how the average American would react to India's focal obsession with cricket? Or to the Spanish tradition of a siesta? Or to the Saudi expectation of female subservience? Of course, most immigrants embrace their new cultural experience - complementing it with their own. The great beauty of America is our ability to incorporate new identities into the broader American identity. We are the ultimate complementary nation. This is good. Unfortunately, there will always be those who are unwilling to adapt to their new environments. This can lead to a sense of alienation.

2) A Sense of Alienation

When an individual feels that he/she has no attachment and no relationship with the society in which he/she lives, that dynamic is not conducive to the individual's ability to function in that society. When individuals are unable to gel with others, this divergence can manifest itself in a brooding and ever deepening sense of social isolation. It's notable that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was regarded by many who interacted with him as socially dysfunctional. He himself complained about his lack of friends. While alienation does not in and of itself equal extremism, it also provides an obvious foundation for extremism to take root. People want to belong and extremism can offer the belonging they desire.

3) The Clarity of Extremism

For those who subscribe to politically extremist ideologies, there is a sustaining trend of motivation. Primarily, the extremist ability to offer simplistic, accessible prescriptions for complex social problems. Consider some examples from history. The rise of the KKK was rooted in the fear of social change. The emergent power of Nazism was the result of a common perception of social decay and dysfunction. Identity politics gave a face to the ills of German society. 'Blame the Jews, blame the communists, blame the travelers'. It allowed mobilization in common cause and offered a solution to German decline. In the UK today, the far-right finds increasing sympathy in a band of disaffected young-middle aged men. The BNP and EDL might not offer serious solutions, but what they do offer is an easy explanation for social ills. Then comes the mythology - Whether concerning the purity of southern values (KKK), the unified fatherland (Germany), or the crusaders of traditionalism (see crusader imagery of EDL), extremists situate their extremism in deeper social meaning. They appeal to a pre-existing ideational comfort in order to mobilize political activity in the moment. More specific to the Tsarnaev's, consider the role of extremist Islam. Though this is a grossly simplified explanation, violent Shia Islamists root their activities in the culture of righteous resistance. For one example, the legacy of Karbala finds contemporary voice in the pervasive martyrdom imagery of Hizballah. But what about Sunni Islamist extremism - the cause of most Chechen extremists. Consider the intellectual father of modern Sunni political extremism - Sayyid Qutb. In his writings, Qutb identified all the ills of the world as stemming from a central source - Separation from the divine authority/wisdom of Allah (jahiliyah). If only, Qutb and his followers claim, society acted in concert with God, then the problems of the world would find final resolution. This notion of finality is central to violent Sunni extremism. Its agents are not acting in pursuit of political reforms to the existing political order, they seek reforms in the pusuit of a fundamentally new order. A pure order. A order worth hard choices and ultimate sacrifice. This clarity can thus lead to the appeal of purpose in extremism.

4) Finding Purpose in Extremism

What did Tamerlan Tsarnaev's six month 2012 trip to Russia entail? What was he doing there? Who did he meet? What did he learn? 

Chechen Islamist extremists are well known for their absolutist devotion to their cause. In 1995, Chechen terrorists held hostages at a Russian hospital. In 2002, Chechen terrorists allied with Al Qa'ida, fought bare foot on freezing Afghan Mountains. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took over a Russian school and massacred hundreds of children. In 2010, Chechen terrorists attacked the Moscow metro system and in 2011, attacked Moscow's main airport. In the context of this record, for Chechen terrorists at least, blowing up a Marathon is not a morally complex act. We need to know if Tamerlan had direction to do what he and his brother did. We need to know if Dzhokhar (who many saw as a harmless pot head) was turned by Tamerlan. But we also need to recognize why homegrown terrorists find purpose in the atrocities they commit. Because of the purposive clarity which Sunni extremism offers - a unified world under a righteous and just new order, its purveyors have few qualms about taking monstrous actions in their pursuit of that new order. After all, as they see it, they're simply implementing the divine, omnipotent will of God. By bombing Boston, perhaps Tamerlan and Dzhokhar believed they would find purpose in becoming new Islamist leaders - valiant heroes struggling against the existential immorality of America.  

Some people are so desperate for purpose that they lose sight of the very essence of human existence. Sometimes, purpose becomes an end in itself.

Where this leaves us...
Of course, the Tsarnaev's were delusional. Like all terrorists, their calculating murder had no justification. In the end, like the July 7 bombers (who, except for one, were all born in the UK), they were losers who chose to betray the country which gave them opportunities for a better life. We can recognize this and hate them for what they have done. But in order to defeat men and women like the Tsarnaevs, in order to protect ourselves against the future homegrown attacks, we must look to how homegrown terrorism takes place. And we must match this pursuit with vigilance and resolve.

For some of my other writings on terrorism - please click here

1 comment:

  1. You're thesis is flawed from the start. There was no evidence produced against the alleged bombers in London on 7-7. There was never a proper investigation of the event. As with Boston, there was a Drill taking place with many people playing the part of injured people, it is impossible, because of a lack of an inquiry, to verify the 'real' number of dead and injured. The alleged bombers in London, whom despite having blown themselves to pieces, along with their 'Backpack bombs' were hunted down and murdered in London's Docklands. Just as the Tsarnaev Brothers were in Boston.Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that the elder brother was arrested and mysteriously died later. The younger brother was apparently riddled with bullets, that he tried to kill himself, that he could not speak because he had a bullet in his throat but is now well enough to be incarcerated in a prison, this must pass for a medical miracle of some sort. It is those in the mainstream media whom are so easily convinced by this sort of rubbish, whom accept with alacrity that the chosen perpetrator is guilty without need of a trial, that are leading us into a Police State, where a suspect can, like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, be brutally killed after arrest, with impunity. Well done.