Murder in a friendless world

The Tsarnaev brothers can be seen as just one element of a global blowback against a world system of war and violence.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev displayed early a propensity for violence, from boxing to domestic abuse of his girlfriend [AP]

What does it mean to live “without a friend” in a world “without values”? We can’t ask Tamerlan Tsarnaev, although we know that is how he believed his life to be. Will the prosecutors hoping to convict his brother Dzhokhar of the Boston Marathon bombing ask the younger Tsarnaev? Or will the case be so overdetermined by the accusations of terrorism that any possibility of drawing a broader social meaning from the murders and mayhem they unleashed will be frustrated?

Of the many questions that have been asked about the bombings, one of the most important is why the murder of the three innocent people is so quickly described as terrorism while the murder of 26 children and teachers in Newtown, or 12 students and one teacher at Columbine are the work of insane people. After Boston, politicians are calling for even more draconian restrictions on rights and civil liberties; after Newtown, they called for increasing mental health treatment. One led to a push for more mental health care and the other for more “homeland security” spending.

What makes makes some violence terrorism and some violence merely criminal? One murderer insane and another an “enemy combatant” – that is, totally outside the social body? Why do we assume that if a young man is obsessed with extremely violent videos, websites and extreme music that he is psychologically disturbed, but if he’s obsessed with religion – not any religion, Islam only it appears – and begins following extremists online and viewing violent videos or reading violent literature that he’s become merely a “radical” – that is, he’s made a conscious and “sane” political decision to attack and murder people in the name of an ideology, and isn’t suffering from some kind of mental illness?

Why do we have to make these epistemological and even ontological distinctions between forms of discourse and symptoms of mental illness that in fact are quite related?

The politics of psychopaths

It didn’t used to be so. In the pre and early modern era in Europe – when young states were still trying to create new systems of sovereignty – insanity and criminality were deeply connected. Both related to categorising and policing the margins of emerging societies so that governments could remove those considered a danger to the social body and to the prescribed modes of thought and behaviour membership in it demanded.

Profile on the Tsarnaev brothers

As political ideologies begin to emerge in response to the institutionalisation of what we would recognise as modern state structures and systems, political and psychiatric deviancy began to separate. Loyalty to the state – and to the “people” or nation it supposedly represented or embodied – became more normative. Thus the idea of engaging in what today would be described as terroristic violence became particularly threatening to governments. Terrorism against civilians means individuals are attacked because they represent a greater whole, because maiming or killing them weakens the social fabric, demonstrating the inability of the state to protect its people.

This is why a homemade bomb that kills three people is called by the federal prosecutors a “weapon of mass destruction”, while an AR-15 assault rifle with a high capacity clip is not; and indeed, today shows no signs of becoming illegal any time soon.

One of the core components of terrorism as defined by American and international law is that it is violence against civilians and/or the state that is meant to serve a political end; that is, to force a change in policies and/or behaviours by a government that would (seemingly) otherwise not occur. It is not known yet precisely why the Tsarnaev brothers went on their murderous spree; but from what has been released or leaked to the public by officials, it seems that part of the reason stemmed from the seemingly ubiquitous anger against US policies in the Muslim world, in particular the invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the first generation of al-Qaeda led by bin Laden and Zawahiri provided a clear political rationale for their attacks – to force the US into an all out war that would cripple its economy and ruin its international position – there is no evidence that the brothers believed their actions would have any kind of political impact, that it would change American policy or weaken the power or resolve of the government.

Indeed, as Chechens, the brothers could have chosen a much more directly relevant target for their anger – the fairly substantial Russian community living in the Boston area, many of whom are in fact Jewish (presumably a plus for Islamist jihadis). If Tamerlan was supposedly radicalised by his time in the restive Russian Muslim regions of his ancestry and childhood, there were many targets much more directly related to Russia he could have attacked. Instead, he chose to strike out in the most amorphous way possible; without any real philosophy or political motive, against people who had nothing to do with the violence that directly affected his family. Or did they?

Women don’t count?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev had long displayed the kind of tendencies that should have alerted the authorities that he was a public threat. He was aggressive and violent, and according to accounts from relatives and friends, as well as police reports, he beat his girlfriend on multiple occasions. It is telling that politicians are up in arms that the Russian intelligence reports about his then suspected jihadi leanings didn’t move the FBI to see him as a threat, but how many politicians have shown similar outrage that beating a woman with whom he was having a relationship – and the terror experienced by abused women (or any abused partners or children such situations) is among the most profound types of terror – didn’t mark him for revocation of his residency rights in the United States?

Boston bombing suspect was ‘added’ to US terrorist database

The manner in which the Tsarnaev brothers slipped through the cracks of the American security/intelligence system is considered unforgivable, and no doubt their actions will increase an already trillion dollar budget. Meanwhile, total Federal spending to fight domestic violence is well under three orders of magnitude – thousands of times – less than what is devoted to the “war on terror”, despite the fact that every year millions of women are brutalised (compared with less than a dozen killed in Muslim-perpetrated terrorist attacks); the number is even greater if the category is expanded to include children or gay partners. Thousands are killed. And even the little money spent and protection offered is too much for many politicians, as Republicans continue to try to gut the Violence Against Women act every time it’s up for renewal.

It is doubtful that anyone will use the Boston marathon attacks to explore how not dealing with violence against women can lead to even greater violence against the community, even though after Newtown there was a flurry of discussions about improving access to mental health services – or at least doing mental health background checks – in order to prevent mentally ill people from legally purchasing guns.  

Blowback out of nowhere

It is also highly unlikely that any serious national discussion will take place as to how, assuming we can take at face value the apparent claim by younger brother Dzhokhar that the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were behind the attacks, American policies which have had no direct impact on them could outweigh anger at Russia, coupled with all the opportunities life in the US afforded them, and lead them indiscriminately to kill Americans.

There is in fact a trajectory, however serpentine, which joins the US to Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, in a cycle of systematic large-scale violence in Chechnya and the broader region that goes back at least seventy years to Stalin’s genocidal displacement of Chechens during World War II, and the initiation of the US-Saudi “special relationship” that began at the same moment; through the brutal Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the American, Saudi and Pakistani support for the Taliban “freedom fighters” and all the violence produced by the resistance to the Soviet occupation and the ensuing decade and a half of civil war and Taliban-control (never mind the global spread of jihadi salafism it encouraged); and finally arriving at the ongoing Russian state violence against Chechnya and other “restive” Muslim regions on the one hand, and American state violence and support for violent and oppressive policies by its clients across the arc of (in)stability beginning in Morocco and continuing East across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia on the other.

Indeed, the Tsarnaev brothers can be seen as just one element of a global blowback against a world system that for centuries has produced war and violence on a massive scale. This is a system in which all of us are implicated – the bystanders at the marathon as much as the average citizen in Russia. This does not mean that any innocent civilian deserves to be hurt or killed in a terrorist attack; it merely points to the reality that the individual remains, as s/he’s been for nearly half a millennium, the final node in the web of modern state power that makes random “ordinary” people natural objects of attack when the state is too powerful to be hurt directly.

Tracing Tsarnaev brothers childhood roots

Younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s tweets reflect just how confused the brothers were about their own identity and relationship to the system they would soon set out to attack. In the space of less than a year, he would declare that he was in “a decade in america already, I want out”, that the “value of human life ain’t sh*t nowadays that’s #tragic”, that 9/11 was an “inside job”, that local fellow Muslims refused to accept him as one of their own, that “I don’t argue with fools who say islam is terrorism it’s not worth a thing”, and that there “ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people”.

At some point he clearly decided – or had no choice but to decide – if his older brother was half the charismatic monster he’s being depicted as being; that the “people” could not and should not stay safe, and instead were his enemies to be attacked with murderous abandon.

Of course, most Americans, like their Russian, Israeli, Indian, Chinese and so many other counterparts, have no desire to use this occasion to consider their own implication in a system that produces Tamerlan Tsarnaevs as sure as it produces Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas, and all the abusers getting away with terrorising their families, lovers and friends. It’s much easier simply to call the Tsarnaev killing spree terrorism, because the way we’ve come to define terrorism in mainstream discourse has made it a one-way act, stemming from the outside and so leaving us without any responsibility or role in its genealogy. In fact this dynamic is not that different from defining mass murderers as insane, which similarly takes away any rationality from their actions.

A natural byproduct

Do Americans want to admit that as a society they produce an incredible amount of violence, and that sometimes the structure of the society helps produce people like the Columbine, Newtown or Boston murderers? Do they have the time and willingness to consider the incredibly twisted path leading back to the 1940s Soviet Union and ending, at least on this occasion, at the Boston Marathon finish line?

How about the fact that just up the road at Harvard, Samuel Huntington – one of the men most responsible for inventing and executing the idea of carpet-bombing millions of Vietnamese as a way of defeating an anti-colonial movement that initially looked to American history for inspiration – was rewarded for his genocidal genius with a lifetime sinecure at  America’s greatest university and a gushing obituary by Fareed Zakaria? Or that a few hundred miles to the south, the present occupant of the White House thinks that killing thousands of people by remote control is the best way to deal with the threat of terrorism that his – as much today as his predecessors’ – policies have created and sustained?

At some still unidentified moment Dzhokhar experienced a similar break to his brother. The sociability that made him popular with friends stopped and he joined his brother as a loner, with both their lives forever more defined by a kind of violence for which Tamerlan, at least, had long displayed a propensity. All that was required was an ideology that provided the justification, meaning and context with which to unleash the pent up violence. 
It is often assumed that ideologies like violent Islamism are inherently political. And thus someone deploying an extreme ideology or set of beliefs must, by definition, have a well-conceived (if seemingly unjustified) political rationale behind it. In this regard, it might well be true, up to a point, that the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were in fact important motivations for the brothers’ murder spree. But given the broader context for their lives, I find it hard to believe that two wars from which the US broadly begun to draw down were the most important motivations for their actions (even the local jihadi warlord in Chechnya denied involvement, saying that his group was focused on Russia, not outside power). Ideologies don’t have to be at heart political; they can also serve psychological as well and even more so than political ends. 

Listening Post – Boston: When the media gets it wrong

At heart, however, ideologies are stories that attempt to explain why the world is not as it should be and what can make one’s place in have more meaning. For the Tsarnaev brothers, the desire to inflict pain on others most likely had very deep psychological roots, providing meaning for otherwise empty and purposeless lives. This is particularly true for the hostile and often violent Tamerlan, whose turn toward increasingly conservative religion came at the moment his skills as a boxer, which had defined his life and seemed to augur a promising caereer, crashed into the reality that he wasn’t good enough to compete at the highest level, leaving no legitimate outlet for his aggression. For someone who’d alienated so many around him, an act of terrorism might bring him friends he could trust. If not in this life, then in the next.

In a recent blog post, Salilsou Suleiman quoted an old African proverb to describe the way in which Nigerians allowed the now metastasising Boko Haram violence to spread unchecked to the point of threatening the survival of Nigeria as a unified country. “‘It is said that when you notice a neighbour’s beard on fire, sprinkle water on yours; in other words, when you detect trouble from afar, try to resolve it even if it doesn’t affect you directly, because left to spread, it may engulf everyone.’ It’s as simple as that, really,” Suleiman commented. “We are all responsible for the actions of those around us, because in societies we are defined by separations between our own and others actions we can explain away the injustices and crimes of those around us.”

As Bostonians continue to pick up the pieces of a tragedy that so rent the much-celebrated fabric of its community, Americans as a whole are forced to consider how to heal and bring meaning not merely to the immediate tragedy of the Marathon bombings and surrounding violence, but to a world’s history and present-day system that has made events thousands of miles and generations removed from them, as terrifyingly real as if they’d occurred on their doorsteps. It is a lesson that, tragically, has rarely been learned before.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming