Boston Marathon Explosion

The Boston Marathon Suspects Are Killers, Not Combatants

The Tsarnaev brothers were certainly enemies of the people of the United States. But, as Michael Daly reports, they were not enemy combatants. And it’s a mistake to elevate them with the designation.

04.21.13 8:45 AM ET

The chant that rose in the streets of Watertown after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the same one shouted by people at Ground Zero in New York after the killing of Osama bin Laden.


In both instances, citizens were simultaneously announcing that they would not be intimidated and celebrating the brave souls who had placed themselves at risk to deliver justice—the Navy SEALs in the case of Bin Laden and the cops and agents in the case of Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan.

Few have ever been more deserving of cheers than the cops who early Thursday morning chased the Tsarnaev brothers through the streets of Boston amid gunfire and exploding grenades. These cops included MTBA Transit Police Officer Richard Donohue, who had a 7-month-old son at home and had been an academy classmate of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, whose killing immediately preceded the chase. Donohue kept charging straight into the most mortal danger until he himself was shot and nearly killed.

But in celebrating the heroes, it is important not to elevate the Tsarnaev bothers from craven fiends into foes at war with the United States. The Bush administration and others made the mistake of doing that with al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, designating them enemy combatants rather what they really were—criminals who should be tried like any other criminals.

Some, including Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have already called for the surviving brother to be treated as a terrorist rather than a criminal. A tweet from Graham read, “I hope administration will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as enemy combatant for intelligence-gathering purposes."

Somebody who bombs a crowd of spectators or executes a cop as he sits in a patrol car is not a combatant, though he is truly an enemy of America and the rest of humanity. He is a killer.

To call him anything more than that is to play into the hands of our larger enemy, one that is harder to counter than any individual jihadi or even any particular organization.

The thornier threat America faces is that jihad has become a mechanism for losers of all sorts to obtain a sense of power and purpose.

Look at the individual hijackers who brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11. Each was almost certainly acting not so much out of true political or even religious conviction as from some psychological need to become more than what they otherwise felt themselves to be.

These were not victims of oppression made stony-hearted by suffering and injustice, and driven to fight a larger power with the only means at hand. These were guys who felt little who wanted to feel big.

The great Osama bin Laden was his mother’s only boy, but he was also his father’s 17th son and just one of maybe 50 siblings. He persists in death as a paradigm for anybody willing to murder innocents in order to become a combatant. The jihadis now have a chant of their own, emblazoned across the cover of the spring 2013 issue of al Qaeda’s English-language online magazine, Inspire.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“We are all Usama!”

As has been widely reported, a 2010 issue of Inspire carried a recipe for the pressure-cooker bomb used to such horrific effect at the Boston Marathon. The more general recipe that Tamerlan Tsarnaev followed was how to make yourself into something more than just a disappointment to your father and yourself.

The father, Anzor Tsarnaev, is said to have been an amateur boxing champion as well as a lawyer before he emigrated to America and worked as a car mechanic. Tamerlan decided that he, too, would become a champion boxer.

Neighbors remember the father riding a bicycle alongside his older son as he went on the long runs that are part of the training. Tamerlan spoke of boxing for the U.S. Olympic team and turning pro.

He did become the 2010 Golden Gloves heavyweight champion for New England and win its Rocky Graziano Award. But he had shown at the nationals in Salt Lake City the previous year that he was only good, not great, tough but unskilled. He was never going to be a real Graziano.

Tamerlan had in the meantime dropped out of college and reportedly caused his application for citizenship to be delayed after he was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. The father made his disapproval known.

At the same time, the father and mother had begun arguing loudly enough for neighbors to take notice and for the police to visit. The parents finally divorced and returned separately to Dagestan, leaving the sons to live on their own. The mother’s departure was preceded by a 2012 arrest for shoplifting $1,600 in dresses from a Lord & Taylor in Natick, Mass.

When an uncle who would later term Tamerlan “a loser” asked him about his plans for the future, Tamerlan replied it was all in God’s hands. Tamerlan had by 2010 become more manifestly Muslim in his attire and lifestyle, trading almost pimpish clothes for flowing white gowns. He took an increasing interest in jihad, posting a playlist headed “Terrorists.”

Yet, when the Russian government in 2011 asked the FBI to run a check on Tamerlan—and agents did so complete with an interview in accordance with its Domestic Investigations Operations Guide—there was no indication that he had been in contact with any known Islamic militants.

What the FBI apparently failed to consider and what might have become apparent if it had subsequently checked his YouTube account was that Tamerlan was following that larger recipe, the one Al Qaeda suggests in its magazine. Some even sound read like those in women’s magazines, promising the secret to true romance.

“The Jihadi Experience!”

This recipe for trading your troubles for power is one strengthened every time a killer is called an enemy combatant. Tamerlan’s best and apparently only American friend, Brendan Mess, had his throat cut along with two other men in a triple homicide in 2011 that may have been drug related, as the bodies were sprinkled with marijuana. The killer or killers were never caught, but if they are, nobody is likely to call for them to be treated as anything but murderers.

If he had not imagined that he was going to transform himself into something more than the kind of monster who murdered his friend, Tamerlan might have been less likely to follow that more concrete recipe for how to make a pressure-cooker bomb.

And he might not have been able to lure his adoring younger brother into joining him. Dzhokhar had until recently given his father only reason to be proud. He had been a good student and a star athlete in high school, and had been awarded a $2,500 college scholarship by the city of Cambridge.

Dzhokhar had become an American citizen at a mass ceremony on September 11, 2012, what the presiding judge noted was by chance the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Dzhokhar had seemed another assimilation in the continuing American miracle as he joined people from 132 countries in solemnly pledging to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

But with the parents divorced and the father absent, Dzhokhar let his studies slide and increasingly sought escape in pot and videogames. He had failing grades at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and was in danger of becoming a kind of loser himself as he fell ever more under his brother’s sway.

In the surveillance-video footage made public after the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar can be seen walking in his brother’s footsteps. Dzhokhar had at another time of his life volunteered to work as a Big Buddy with disabled kids. He was now following his brother into becoming what the Dzhokhar of back then would likely have despised. He continued solo into a culpability all his own after Tamerlan paused to set down his backpack where the first bomb would detonate.

Dzhokhar set down his own backpack at the site of the second bomb with the same right hand he had raised to take his oath of citizenship. He then took out his cell phone and appeared either to make or receive a call. He also appeared to have enough of a smile to mark him much more of a murderer than any kind of combatant.

He and his brother were certainly enemies of the people of the United States. But they were not combatants fighting for a particular political or religious goal.

Their victims, notably including an 8-year-old boy, did not die in combat. They died in a crime. And to call the perpetrators anything but killers only heightens the chance that there will be more of them in the future.

Meanwhile, as was demonstrated, the Watertown couple who noted the cover of their boat had been disturbed after the police had initially failed to find the second suspect, it is time to be alert.

Before you can say something, you have to see something.