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Craig Brown Event for The Mail on Sunday



The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road To A Modern Tragedy 

Masha Gessen                                                                                          ★★★★★

Halfway through this haystack of a book there is a brief summary of the one event that is clear and incontestable. It occurred on April 15, 2013, a public holiday. 

‘At 2:49pm that day, a couple of hours after the winner completed the Boston Marathon, when runners were crossing the finish line in a steady stream, two bombs went off near the end of the route, killing three people and injuring at least 264 others, including 16 who lost limbs.’

Some time later, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were identified as the bombers. 

Runners head towards the finish line as a bomb explodes at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and  at least 264 others injured, including 16 who lost limbs

Runners head towards the finish line as a bomb explodes at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and at least 264 others injured, including 16 who lost limbs

In the ensuing manhunt, the older brother, Tamerlan, was killed. Dzhokhar was eventually cornered hiding in a boat parked in a garden. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to death by a Boston jury.

We know that the brothers were guilty, but, as it says on the blurb, ‘what we don’t know is why. How did such a nightmare come to pass?’

After nearly 300 pages, the question remains unanswered. Throughout the book, the author is attempting to sew up various possibilities, only to unpick her own sewing a few pages later. Despite herself, she remains baffled. 

This is a mark of her honesty, but it is also a mark of what makes her book so frustrating. 

In the ensuing manhunt, the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed

In the ensuing manhunt, the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed

‘What is truly lacking from the story is a clear and accessible explanation for how two young men who appear to be very much like hundreds of other young men came to cause carnage in the centre of their own city,’ she writes.

A few months ago, I reviewed a book called One Of Us, about Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people, most of them teenagers, in Norway in July 2011. Compared to the blokeish Tsarnaev brothers, Breivik was a biographer’s dream, a loner whose life was brim-full with hatred and suspicion.

Sent by his worried mother (herself a paranoid schizophrenic) for examination, the young Anders was, in the words of his child psychologist, notably lacking any ‘joy in life, with no spontaneity and no capacity for empathy’. 

Almost everything he did – from torturing his pet rats to playing online war games, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for five years – pointed sharply in the direction of some future atrocity.

But the Tsarnaev brothers left no such fingerprints. Masha Glessen has clearly done a formidable job of research, painstakingly following the complex Tsarnaev family trail through Chechnya and Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan, and finally to Boston, but the cupboard remains bare. 

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were apparently such normal young guys – laughing, smoking dope, chatting on Facebook – that when they popped up on TV as prime suspects their friends stared back at the screen in disbelief. 

Right up to the day of the bombing, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, had been filling his Facebook page with posts about girls, food, and the drudgery of student life.

Towards the end, Gessen comes up with some sort of explanation for their behaviour, but it is so tentative and uncertain that it seems to crumble in her hands: ‘As for the brothers, theirs remains a small story, in which nothing extraordinary happens – or, rather, no extraordinary event is necessary to explain what happened. 

‘One had only to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many people are, to never feel that one belongs, to see every opportunity, even those that seem within reach, pass one by – until the opportunity to be somebody finally, almost accidentally, presents itself.’

Younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine

Younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine

Well, yes… but then again, no. In her painstaking analysis of the displacement of people in the Soviet satellite countries, stretching all the way back to Stalin, Gessen makes it clear that the Tsarnaevs were just one family among many born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so forth. 

But why, out of all these many millions of people, was it the two Tsarnaev brothers – who had had it rather easier than most – who turned into killers?

The older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have been a model child, born to loving parents. 

‘He was decked out in bow-ties from the time he was a toddler; in grade school, he would stand out among his classmates for his clean clothes; in middle school, for his near-perfect grades.’ 

He was, though, afraid of fireworks at school, ‘presumably,’ writes Gessen, ‘because he had been terrified by the bombing of Chechnya’. 

But this is clutching at straws: later in that same paragraph, Gessen admits that Tamerlan had not actually lived in Chechnya during the war.

The boys arrived in Boston a few months after 9/11. Dzhokhar was just eight, ‘the sweet kid, the kid everyone loves’. Tamerlan taught himself English by reading Sherlock Holmes. 

‘I like the USA. You have a chance to make a lot of money here if you are prepared to work,’ he told a local Massachusetts newspaper after winning the Golden Gloves boxing competition. 

He soon became an all-American guy, playing keyboard in a band, delivering pizza, dealing in a bit of pot on the side.

Dzhokhar, too, was full of promise, enrolling at the University of Massachusetts on a scholarship. 

He then fell into bit of a slough, smoking dope and playing video games, but this hardly makes him an oddball. 

Three days before the bombing, he was tweeting, laddishly, ‘we are just looking for future baby mamas’, and, eight minutes later: ‘Dreams really do come true, last night I dreamt I was eating a cheeseburger and in the afternoon today, guess what I’m eating…’

President Obama during a news conference following the bombing

President Obama during a news conference following the bombing

It seems, though, that most terrorists are closer to the Tsarnaevs than they are to Breivik, ordinary blokes rather than hate-filled madmen. 

‘Terrorists are not depressed, severely emotionally disturbed or crazed fanatics. Their primary shared characteristic is their normalcy,’ declares one specialist in the burgeoning new field of ‘terrorism studies’.

Another says: ‘They are usually in their early 20s, they are often immigrants, they have usually been educated in secular schools, often with an emphasis on science, they are usually married, and their socioeconomic background is usually middle-class but marginalised.’ 

The Tsarnaev brothers tick virtually all of these boxes but, then again, so do hundreds of thousands of others. The best way to spot a terrorist is to look for someone who doesn’t seem like a terrorist. We are back where we started.

Small wonder, then, if Gessen is on a hiding to nothing. In January, 2012, Tamerlan had returned to Dagestan.

‘When you return after a decade, especially to a place the love of which has been impressed upon you, but even more important, a place where you were a teenager, everything feels right,’ she writes, in her airy, convoluted prose. 

Others less expert than Gessen have speculated that this is when Tamerlan was actively radicalised, but she can find little evidence for this. 

‘Most of what Tamerlan did during his six months in Dagestan was talk.’ 

But when he returned, he was more overtly anti-American, causing his long-suffering American landlady, a well-meaning hippy liberal, to say: ‘If you hate America so much, why don’t you just get out?’

Almost as though embarrassed by her lack of anything more solid, Gessen closes her book with a selection of conspiracy theories, offering them with one hand, only to withdraw them a few lines later with the other. 


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Was there a third person involved? Had the FBI been goading them on, hoping to entrap them, when it all got out of hand? Did they conceal their identities after the bombings so that they could get to them first? Could the brothers ever have constructed those bombs without help from an expert?

This work ends in a quagmire of rumour and counter-rumour, muddle and counter-muddle. 

With only a few pages to go, Gessen declares one of her latest conjectures ‘almost undoubtedly’ true. 

It’s the forced combination of these two opposites – ‘almost’ and ‘undoubtedly’ – that serves as the perfect symbol for this baffling, baffled book.


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