Why do so many people want to understand Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? To find within him some speck of humanity?
That’s not an accusation; it’s a statement of fact. In the weeks since the Boston Marathon bombings — in columns, in tweets, in hushed and guilty conversations — there has been a widespread urge to get inside the suspect’s head, to imagine him somehow brainwashed, bullied, regretful. Not everyone feels this way, of course. But it’s not hard to view Tsarnaev differently from the 9/11 bombers, or from Jared Lee Loughner or Adam Lanza, two other young men who committed mass murder in recent months.
Those men, the common narrative goes, were sick. Distant. Separate. Tsarnaev was different. Before the mayhem, he seemed to be one of us.
This is a pressing mystery of the bombings, and the fact that we’re hunting for answers doesn’t mean we’re going soft. It doesn’t mean we aren’t angry.
It has to do with unanswered questions, both general and specific, and the hope that somehow, answers could prevent further attacks. How do small numbers of young men grow radicalized? How do they lose their humanity? How do they evolve from boys — with friends, parents, social lives — to killers?
These are moral questions, but they’re also anthropological ones. So this week, I asked some anthropologists what the Tsarnaev brothers had in common with disaffected young men around the world, and also what set them apart.
I was told the brothers are outliers, not members of a formal terror group. They were immersed, to some degree, in American culture.
On the other hand, they fit some common themes. They were educated, like many sympathizers of the most violent strains of Islam. They had anger and emotion, a connection to larger ideas, an ability to find training, even if online.
“You don’t generally find people who are really abjectly poor doing this sort of thing,” said Daniel Lende, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida. “They’re people who have some understanding of the world, and who know what it means to strike terror.”
And the fact that their peers didn’t think they were dangerous or destructive? That, Lende said, is a commonality, too.
In the mid-2000s, Lende spent five years in Colombia, working as a counselor for young people caught up in the atrocities of the drug wars. He researched the lives of at-risk kids, trying to understand their behavior.
“I knew kids who did bad things,” Lende told me. “I knew kids who did great things. Sometimes [they were] the same kids.”
Sometimes, Lende said, a bad action was tied to a precipitating event. Sometimes, it came because a young man lost his social connections, to family or friends.
It’s hard to underestimate the power of those ties, said Cynthia Mahmood, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame. She spent some of the past decade on the Pakistan side of Kashmir, talking to young warriors who had signed up for violent jihad.
In some cultures, she said, frustrated young men channel their anger into self-destructive behavior, drinking, and drugs. In Pakistan, it was easy to find formal paths for disaffection. Radical groups set up tables on the streets for recruitment and placement, almost as if they were sending kids off to study abroad, she said. Friends signed up together, in groups, seeking adventure. The cause was appealing, seen as a way of life.
Was this Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivation? Was there something in his home life, his native culture, that drove him more easily to terror? Could his American friends have overridden those impulses, if they’d known he was thinking that way? Or, once he was in deep enough, was there no turning back?
Mahmood craves answers, too. But she’s not sure we’ll get satisfactory ones, even if Tsarnaev lives and speaks. She has spoken to young mujahadeen. She has asked them to weigh their ideals against the deaths of innocents.
She has learned, in the process, that empathy has its limits.
“In all of the people I’ve talked to who have been involved in these kinds of actions,” Mahmood told me, “only a tiny handful ever express regrets.”Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.