Whose fault is it that the Boston Marathon was bombed? Is Russia to blame for 250 years of trying to incorporate the Muslim North Caucasus nations, like the Chechens and Dagestanis, first into the czars’ Christian Orthodox Empire, then into the Soviet Union, and now into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s all-controlling Russian state? Or is radical Islam the only explanation we need, both in Russia and the West?
The attack, allegedly by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has invariably elicited comparisons to the Saudi-born terrorists who struck the US on Sept. 11, 2001, or to the Pakistani immigrant Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square in 2010. Others have suggested that the 26-year-old Tamerlan, an ethnic Chechen, may have witnessed the Russian/Chechen war of 1999, or Russia’s brutal efforts to pacify insurgent fighting in the North Caucasus. Overwhelmed by the Russian Army’s ruthlessness, it is said, he and his teenage brother chose to spread the violence to US soil.
The problem with this explanation is that the Tsarnaev brothers were from Kyrgyzstan. They never lived in Chechnya, and only briefly passed through Dagestan in the early 2000’s. Their ties with the region are those of the diaspora. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel, immediately said that the brothers had nothing to do with his republic.
Dzhokhar, now 19, was only eight years old when the family moved to the US — settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts — and by many accounts he was a reasonably well-adjusted US immigrant. He recently began to identify with his religious and ethnic origins, and was experiencing academic difficulties at university, but he was well versed in multiple US subcultures.
Tamerlan, a boxer almost good enough to turn professional, was married to an American Christian woman who converted to Islam and became observant with her husband. Patimat Suleimanova, the Tsarnaevs’ aunt in Dagestan, explained that her older nephew never prayed before he went to the US at age 16.
“He didn’t even know what Islam was,” she told CNN.
In her view, Tamerlan’s radicalization was made in the US.
Essentially, the young men’s stories are not so different from the US’ home-grown “lone wolves,” typically white and equally disenchanted, who have so often shed blood in the US. The difference is that white men are not collectively blamed for the atrocities. Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut, or James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, are not viewed as part of a “suspicious” religious or ethnic group. Even when non-Muslim white men launch explicitly terrorist attacks — for example, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in 1995, or the “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski — their offenses are typically regarded as isolated law-enforcement issues, not as terrorism.
By contrast, darker-skinned terrorism suspects, especially Muslims, are considered agents of larger conspiracies that require military involvement and justify human rights violations. The initial call by various US congressmen to prosecute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant” is a case in point. Never mind that Tsarnaev is a naturalized US citizen, and thus cannot be tried by military tribunals, or that he was captured on US soil, not on a battlefield.
To US President Barack Obama’s credit, Tsarnaev will be tried in a civilian court. However, that has not altered Americans’ tendency to generalize invidiously about peoples and countries. Indeed, so rapid was the vilification of Chechens that the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the US felt compelled to issue a statement aimed at preventing any confusion among Americans about his country’s involvement.