The naming of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured alive last night, have made the nightmare scenario for many American Muslims come true. The Tsarnaev brothers will forever be the poster children for a particularly American fear, reflected in everything from blockbuster films to popular fiction: that the English-speaking, dark-haired young men with unpronounceable names, who wear baseball caps, win scholarships, and garner wrestling trophies, are also the ones who could blow you up.
News media are already marking the Boston bombings as a turning point, the moment when homegrown jihadists truly came into the open and declared their desire to destroy America from within. And unlike the spectacular plans for bringing down an airliner over Detroit or leaving a car bomb in Times Square, the weapons of this jihadist war require only trips to a hardware store and a sporting goods shop. “We give him a green card and he comes to hate America,” said Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on Friday.
But in a moment of instant opinions and too-quick analysis, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. The important point about the Tsarnaev brothers is not that they were Chechens, or Muslims, or may have recently visited relatives in Russia. It’s that in asking why mass killers do what they do, we’ve settled into a familiar pattern of turning first to religion and ethnicity as ways of making sense of things.
Neither one is very helpful.
First, the major form of “ethnic violence” in the United States is not terrorism but hate crimes, that is, violence directed against ethnic, religious, or other minorities—not perpetrated by them.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,000 “hard-core hate groups” were active in the United States last year. They inspired Wade Michael Page, the neo-Nazi who murdered six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a conspiracy of active-duty U.S. soldiers who allegedly planned to take over Fort Stewart in Georgia, and a foiled plot by a “white power” high school student in Alabama to kill his black and gay classmates. The obvious point gets lost in the fray: ethnic, religious, and other minorities in the U.S. still have monumentally more to fear from the majority than the other way around.
Second, individual killers rarely come from the most devout, philosophically consistent, or pure strands of their religion. They are ideological hybrids: people who look to mask their disaffections through a language and philosophy that helps them make sense of their own predicaments.
For a sense of the weird thinking that motivates someone like the Tsarnaevs, have a look at Tamerlan’s YouTube channel. He has posted videos that mix up wildly different Islamic traditions, praise people on the fringes of the faith, and lionize strands of the religion that orthodox believers would consider beyond the pale.
Part of his views no doubt had Chechen roots, given that the versions of Islam most widespread in Chechnya, Dagestan, and other parts of Russia’s North Caucasus region have long been seen by mainstream Islam as odd. A particular brand of Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, has long been the dominant form of the faith in the region, although proselytizers from Saudi Arabia have made attempts to turn people in the North Caucasus into allegedly purer Muslims.
The brothers might well have owed something to this fluid religious heritage. In a traditional Chechen family, it would be as hard to avoid as Catholicism in a traditional Italian one. But the social media clues left behind by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar point toward their own weird stew of religious extremism, vague anti-colonialism, knee-jerk nationalism, and a desire to see themselves, perversely, as heroes. The only common threads are amorphous hatred and a desire to find a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s—and their own—problems. The one most available to them happened to be jihadism.
Third, looking at religion and ethnicity isn’t about getting at the evidence. It’s about telling a story that we find convincing. And too often that means finding the long-term cultural trends that purport to explain why people do what they do. Back in the 1990s, during the brutal wars in the Balkans and in central Africa, it was easy to think that the horrific bloodletting rested on ancient hatreds or age-old animosities. But in time it became apparent that the makers of genocidal violence in Bosnia and Rwanda were often motivated by greed and personal advancement, and chose to cloak their own barbarity in nationalism or ethnic pride.
For all the different labels that get attached to it—terrorism, serial killing, ethnic war—much of mass violence is actually one big thing: the attempt by a small group of nihilistic and idiosyncratic individuals to murder, indiscriminately, a great many more.
It is still early days, and more information about possible international links may emerge, but it would not be surprising if this perverse band of brothers simply picked jihadism as their preferred way of telling the rest of the world to go to hell. If that makes the Tsarnaev brothers international terrorists, then other American killers such as Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, Washington snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, and Columbine murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold deserve the label as well.