From ‘Good Kid’ to Terrorist (Some Thoughts on Boston).

Posted: April 22, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Well, that’s over.  As I write this, I am watching NBC News coverage of the capture of “Suspect 2” in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  This has been one of those events when you feel like history is being made, so I want to write a couple blogs in the coming weeks in response.  This blog is the first of those.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

One of the disturbingly enthralling aspects of today’s media coverage has been the interviews and reactions of those that knew “suspect #2” before his apparent conversion to violence.  Over and over today, I have heard 19 and 20 year kids, high school teachers, and parents of friends describe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a extremely normal kid.  Most interviewees have been calling him quiet, athletic, friendly, helpful and kind.  The shock of those who knew him is telling.  No one foresaw this.

It seems the older Tsarnaev was more militant. Reports have depicted him as a loner; as ideological.  But, his younger brother doesn’t seem to fit that mold.  Now, this may be completely wrong.  Perhaps law enforcement will find loads of documents, and writings that prove that the younger Tsarnaev was the ring leader in this attack. I can’t say, though it seems unlikely at this point. We are left asking then, why would this seemingly normal kid commit this horrendous act?

Unfortunately, I know what many political figures, religious leaders, media spokespeople, and persons on the street will say.  It is Islam; violent, malicious Islam. I know this because such rhetoric has been making the rounds since hours after the attack.  But, even those who are not so inflammatory, or so prejudiced feel the need to simplify this situation for an angry, frightened viewing public.  As I heard Brian Williams, NBC head anchor say tonight, everything will be okay in the future “as long as we have more good guys, than bad guys.”

If the younger Tsarnaev had been killed tonight, such simplistic bombast and platitudes would most likely control all discourse. With him in custody, perhaps we can find out the truth of his motivations, and as the atrananthropologist Scott Atran has found, the motivations of terrorists can be surprisingly recognizable.   An incredibly brave scholar, Atran has spent the last decade interviewing members of terrorists groups, their families and their friends, compiling his conclusions in his 2008 book, Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.   His interviews  of young terrorists most often found that they “were campmates, school buddies, soccer pals, and the like, who became die hard bands of brothers in a tragic and misbegotten quest to save their imagined tribal community from…morally deformed” enemies. These youths join cells and organizations because they are intrigued by “the camaraderie of a cause, however admirable or abhorrent, and the courage and commitment that come from belonging to something larger.”  In other words, it is not necessarily ideology that makes these young men kill. They kill for their community. They kill to protect and strengthen their biological or social family.

Is this what happened here?  Is this how a ‘nice, kind kid’ became a murderer? Maybe.  Maybe not.  We should know soon enough. My one hope is that people pay attention to this young man’s motives, and don’t simply label him an Islamo-fascist, or a nut-job, or a bad-guy. Doing so only simplifies, and thus clouds, a complex phenomenon.

  1. rachelday says:

    Reading your reply to the Boston Marathon is questionable. Should we continue to judge this man for what he did or look at the root of the problem? Most people today do not do that. Most people today complain and may make excuses for other people’s acts of madness. Of course, when something like this hits Americans as hard as it did and as fast as it did through Facebook, everyone’s opinions are forced to be heard. Some may have one and some may leave others up for their opinion and just watch as our world becomes more horrifying.

    What I am impressed with is how fast the “good ones” act out in time of need. It takes courage, admiration, and a huge heart to run up to someone suffering when that bomb went off. I can go on to talk about how heroic those people are, but they are not the root of the issue here. They are only the reactant.

    This kid, however you pronounce his name, had to be going through some sort of personal demons alone in his mind to do what he did. However, some may say he seemed normal, but maybe that is because no one really took the time to personally get to know the other side of him. We all have two sides. The one the real world sees (the one we feel we have to project) and the one we hide behind bolted doors and stowed away wooden, locked cases. This kid must have been going through such an indescribable time in his life where he felt killing people was his purpose. I am not too sure what his purpose was, but the man was obviously not happy with himself and the way others perceived him. He wanted more. What he wanted more of we may never know, but bottom line he did what he did. And I do not make excuses for people’s mistakes because I was raised to always takes responsibility for my actions. But let’s ask ourselves this.

    What do you think he wanted accomplished?
    What was his “why” in following through with his actions?
    And were there any consequences if he did not follow through with his actions?

    This brings me back to the story of the man who gave his shoes to a homeless man. In the news, the homeless man sells his shoes for money I believe. To the public, we just assume that he had to get a “fix,” his next addiction that wasn’t going to prosper where we thought he needed to be. However, that homeless man knew that if he didn’t sell his shoes, people were going to hurt him, steal them anyways, or any other horrifying stories we can come up with. In reality, most people do not put themselves in other people’s “shoes.” We just judge because that makes us feel better about our lives…because maybe we are not satisfied ourselves. No one is right to judge, yet we all do. We all have different backgrounds of why our perception is different. That’s what makes us human.

    What I am saying here, is that that kid needed an outlet. And whether it be running, writing, or skydiving, he didn’t have one. And my heart goes out to that. (Now “most people” probably think I am crazy for saying that. How could you think that, he did such horrible things?!) My perception is this: To be so out of touch with yourself, so emotionally hurt, so lost, so purposeless… that you feel the need to bomb a finish line of fulfilled marathon runners, that may be the most satisfying experience they have ever had in their life? That rips my heart in half. However, the follow up of his actions also ripped thousands of people’s hearts in half, a whole nation to say the least. But let’s not continue to put blame on him. Because for every action is a reaction. Let’s focus on how this happened and what would be needed in order for people to find fulfillment and joy in their hearts,so this plan of action would not even come close to sulking in one’s heart.

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