The arrests this week of three young friends of Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were a depressing reminder of both the local roots of this terrorism plot and the horrifying decisions that went into it. Those friends, 19-year-olds Robel Phillipos, Azamat Tazhayakov, and Dias Kadyrbayev, were current or former classmates of Tsarnaev at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. They aren’t accused of knowing about the plot in advance. But when they saw the surveillance photos of their friend on the news, their only action should have been to call police. Instead, prosecutors say, they took Tsarnaev’s backpack — which contained emptied fireworks, one of his homework assignment sheets, and other materials — and threw it in a trash receptacle. Authorities say one of the three, Phillipos, then lied to police when questioned.
The three showed incredibly poor judgment. But the whole narrative confirms that, while the radical motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers — and perhaps, it remains to be seen, some of their training — came from international jihadist movements, the bombing was also the product of family dysfunction, youthful nihilism, and a pattern of low-level crimes escalating into a very major one. These factors in no way lessen the immense suffering that the bombers and any accomplices managed to inflict. But they should influence how the public and the government respond.
If the 9/11 attacks raised the specter of a seemingly existential threat — a ruthless, well-financed, internationally connected terror network — the Boston Marathon bombing points up a further danger: aimless, disaffected men who channel their frustrations into violence. All the details that have emerged about the Tsarnaevs, from their erratic parents to their academic struggles, suggest men who struggled to fit in and, as their uncle put it, chose instead to lash out at the world around them, finding a deadly rationalization in jihadist ideology.
Investigators are still working to find connections between the brothers and organized terror networks. Such networks represent a threat in themselves. But it’s harder for residents of Greater Boston to come to grips with the fact that not all the roots of this attack will be found overseas. The brothers grew up here, in our community. Stopping the next attack will require looking inward to find ways to prevent others from following their path. That means reminding friends, colleagues, and teachers that they have an obligation to keep an eye out for problems — and not to let misplaced loyalties prevent them from doing the right thing.