The Tsarnaev brothers: Third-culture children, from Beslan to Boston

By J Brooks Spector 22 April 2013

In just one week there have already been millions of words written around the world on the Tsarnaev brothers. Commentators have begun to explore the brothers’ ties back to their ancestral Chechnya (or the lack thereof), their relationship to militant Islam (or a lack thereof), and the unhappy history of Chechnya – all as clues to uncover the motives of the Tsarnaevs’ actions at the Boston Marathon and then afterwards. There are millions more words yet to come. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

And then there will be hours and hours of television programming on the events that mid-April afternoon – and then, inevitably, countless websites, blogs and social media postings, the made-for-television film, the books, the documentaries – and probably a computer game or two. And eventually, too, there will be all those interminable court records and the secret files from the FBI, CIA, FSB (the Russian Security Service) to be read once they are made public. Probably, too, there will be songs and perhaps even an opera or two down the road.

Still unclear in all this discussion is how the Tsarnaev brothers – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar – lost their way on the long road from their family’s memories of the mountains and valleys of Chechnya, en route to the explosions at the Boston Marathon’s finish line in Copley Square. Like everyone else, this writer has been wrestling with how two young immigrants with their origins in the tribal reaches of the borders of Russia finally ended up setting off lethal explosive devices at the finish line of one of the world’s great sports events.

“Third-culture children” and “global nomads”. The parents of families who live outside their home country – or families that blend two very different cultures and traditions – are well and intimately familiar with the concept of children who don’t quite fit in any one place and who must construct their own sense of things to make their way in the world. Such children, whenever they are asked where they are from, they hesitate until they finally stumble over the phrase, “nowhere, exactly; probably everywhere”. Most such children eventually find their way. They construct their own cores of flexibility and inner strength. They become people at home virtually anywhere as they move easily through all the cities of the world. But some, inevitably, lose their way. They end up wandering through life, increasingly unmoored.

The various members of the Tsarnaev family traveled their respective journeys from Kyrgyzstan to America and Canada, back through the Russian Caucasus region, and then on to America yet again. Initially they were probably the kind of family that loosely adhered to an official Soviet-style atheism, who then encountered the luxuriant possibilities and temptations of American life. But then, for the two brothers at least, their trajectories looped backwards towards a kind of militant Islam, but merged with a kind of imagined nationalism.

As the Economist wrote about this journey, “The Tsarnaev family, like many families from Chechnya, were part of a diaspora that had scattered all over the globe: Turkey, Syria, Poland, and Austria, and, apparently, suburban Massachusetts. Displaced first by Stalin, who was as distrustful as he was vengeful, and then driven out by the indiscriminate violence of two wars since the fall of the Soviet Union, modern-day Chechens are a people that live outside their homeland as much as inside it. Before 19-year-old Dzhokhar and 26-year-old Tamarlan ended up in Watertown, they travelled a long, searching route familiar to many Chechens, passing through Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country in Central Asia, and Dagestan, a Muslim republic in Russia that borders Chechnya.”

Then, in America, even as they looked towards that horizon of opportunity, with all the choices and temptations; they drew on half-forgotten memories of the tales from an ancient land – the heroics of the Iman Shamil and the tragic defeat of Hadji Murad, and then the twofold destruction of Grozny by relentless Russian tanks, troops and artillery. All of this may have triggered a potent mix of pride and shame. There was pride at the Chechens’ unending struggle of the brave and the fierce against the powerful and the cowardly. But mingled in as well, perhaps, there must have been a private shame for being thousands of kilometers from that cauldron.

But they were also young men who now lived a seemingly typical American suburban life, what with its academically challenging high schools, varsity athletic teams, and scholarships to universities – even as family support and the stability of their family crumbled away. Still young, they were increasingly left to their own devices, to fend with the challenges of American life. At the end of things, somewhere along the way, they landed in what is a still-perplexing mix of ideas with fatal consequences.

For the Tsarnaevs, it became their secret formula of youthful rebellion. Perhaps it was partly a revolt against the cornucopia of American materialism, the confusing welter of influences on the Internet, and the lack of consistent religious messages. Instead they appear to have reached towards the sureties of Islam (mixed perhaps with more than a tincture of inspiration from other Islamic-inspired conflicts), as well as the bravery of those who inhabited their imagined Chechnya. In some way, still incomprehensible to the rest of us, they found the solution to this tangle through the detonation of bombs at an iconic international sports event, a nightmarish night ride through the city of Boston and the killing of two more people on their way to what they hoped was a final martyrdom – but against whom? There are no clear answers on this yet.

Writing in the New York Times this past weekend, veteran foreign correspondent, Oliver Bullough, discussing this stew the Tsarnaev brothers had imbibed, wrote, “We do not know what pushed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured after a standoff with police in a Boston suburb Friday night, and his brother, Tamarlan, 26, who was killed after a police chase the night before, over the edge. Perhaps among the motivations was a 2007 appeal from the Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov. ‘Today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine, our brothers are fighting,’ he said. ‘Our enemy is not Russia only, but everyone who wages war against Islam.’”

But there must have been more to that. Bullough went on, “there was enough in America already to alienate young men like Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold [with Eric Harris, the shooter at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 – Ed] and all the other mass murderers in recent history. There are enough weapons to kill anyone you want, and a madman can always find an excuse for murder if he looks for one. Combine the fact that the Tsarnaev brothers were apparently isolated young men in America with the fact that they had access to the full power of jihadist ideology. Perhaps what we saw in Boston was Beslan meets Columbine; Sandy Hook meets Dubrovka. Let us hope that those two toxic varieties of modern violence never meet again.”

Although the consequences are, of course, very different, the Tsarnaev brothers are also a kind of casualty – in their inability to find a secure handhold on the “American Dream” that has been attracting immigrants for 400 years. Even before the Puritan settlers had even reached the shores that would become Boston in 1630, their spiritual leader, John Winthrop, had told his flock aboard ship, “…that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the lord make it like that of New England: for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…”

In the years that followed, the idea of a divine inspiration for an America as the chosen land became fused with the sense it was also the spot where humanity could itself be reborn. It was the crucible in which the new American man would be created – after burning away the ancient animosities that infected their earlier homes – America was, in that 19thcentury phrase, “the melting pot.”

Even earlier, at the end of the 18th century, French observer St John de Crevecoeur, could write, “…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country… He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…”

This idea then joined with the sense America was a refuge for the despised masses, captured in Emma Lazarus’s poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’” The blending of these ideas has, over the past century and a quarter, proved irresistible to millions, including the Tsarnaev family – all eager to get beyond the ancient antagonisms and to grasp the promises of that new life in the city upon the hill.

The idea these new Americans would magically shuck off their earlier existence was not entirely automatic, of course. Ethnic animosities often crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the immigrants and competition for jobs, homes, neighbourhoods and earlier settler groups all contributed to conflicts. More recently still, the very image of that melting pot has been supplanted by a newer image, that of the tossed salad where individual groups were never quite blended into a bland sameness. For the Tsarnaev brothers, however, they seemed neither to enter fully into the melting pot – nor become a savoury bit in a tasty mix of ethnicities.

But the Tsarnaev sons, despite outward evidence to the contrary, seemed never to get beyond the ancient tugs as they spiralled backwards into their own private maelstrom. The younger Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar, could tweet “a decade in america already, i want out” while his older brother would say he had no American friends, despite being married to one. The melting pot was not enough. Americans have long thought their society was relatively immune to the kinds of extremist cells that exist in long-term émigré communities in the UK and Europe, rather than among the small groups of foreigners who are temporarily resident in America and sometimes bent on violence – but the Tsarnaevs’ journey may now have put the lie to this heretofore comfortable belief.

Anne Applebaum, the chronicler of the varieties of repression in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, points to the parallels, saying it “closely resembles the second-generation European Muslims who staged bombings in Madrid, London and other European cities. Educated and brought up in Europe, these young men nevertheless felt out of place in Europe. Unable to integrate, some turned toward a half-remembered, half-mythological homeland in search of a firmer, fiercer identity. Often they did so with the help of a radical cleric like the one the Tsarnaev brothers may have known. ‘I do not have a single American friend,’ Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly said of himself. That’s the kind of statement that might have been made by a young Pakistani living in Coventry, or a young Algerian living in Paris.”

In its preliminary evaluation of this series of events, the Economist has argued, “In the end, whatever twisted sense of grievance and fury that drove the Tsarnaevs may have found its ultimate trigger in their adopted homeland more than in the one of their memory. Dzhokhar and Tamarlan are Chechen and Muslim, but they are also immigrant young men, struggling with their own sense of isolation and frustration. The language and motifs of the Caucasus militancy may have acted as a kind of salve, however desperate, for whatever dislocation they felt in America. Their uncle, who lives in Maryland, called the brothers ‘losers’ who didn’t know what to make of themselves in America and thus were left ‘hating everyone who did’.”

Unfortunately, it is impossible to assume that they are unique. There are simply too many grievances in this world, too many scores left to settle and inequities left still unaddressed. DM

Read more:

  • Beslan Meets Columbine, a column by Oliver Bullough in the New York Times
  • Islamist anger feeds on Chechnya history at the Financial Times
  • For bombing suspects, question may be who led whom at the AP
  • Chechnya and the bombs in Boston in the Economist
  • Still searching for answers in the Economist
  • Conflict in Chechnya at the PBS (US Public Broadcasting System) website
  • The connection between Boston and Europe’s train bombers, a column by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post
  • Details of the Tsarnaev Brothers, Boston Suspects, Emerge in the New York Times
  • Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were refugees from brutal Chechen conflict in the Washington Post
  • Chechnya connections build picture of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the Guardian (UK)
  • The stories of 2 brothers suspected in bombing at the AP
  • The Culprits, a commentary by David Remnick in the New Yorker

Photo: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Reuters)



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