How the Tsarnaev Brothers Became the Boston Marathon Bombers

Maria Vassileva May 18, 2015

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, 2015

This winter, just months before The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy was released, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen published several dispatches from the jury selection process for the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial in Boston. As an elaborate questionnaire helped both the defense and the prosecution dismiss juror after potential juror, Gessen observed how difficult it was for the justice system to fulfill its promise that Tsarnaev, who with his brother Tamerlan detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring at least 264, would be tried by a jury of his peers. What would such a jury look like? Do we even know enough about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be able to imagine it?

The Brothers looks at the ways 21-year-old Tsarnaev and his family never quite fit in: They were Chechen, but had never lived in Chechnya; the family spoke Russian, but could not assimilate into Boston’s large Russian-speaking community; they were Muslim in two countries, Russia and the United States, where their religion is a source of military conflicts. Dzhokhar seemed to be no different from his American friends, though he changed the spelling of his name to Jahar to make it easier for them to pronounce and they never learned much about his background or family. His older brother Tamerlan was too foreign to compete in U.S. wrestling tournaments that only citizens could enter, too American for the friends he made when he traveled to Dagestan, the Russian republic that had been the family’s last home before they moved to Massachusetts. Gessen navigates the mix of the very American and very foreign in the Tsarnaevs’ story with skill, explaining cultural differences without mystifying them or using them as shorthand for character. She understands that immigrants have to refigure their identities on the go in their new lives, and one of the book’s many strengths is its focus on the emotional upheaval that comes with moving to a new country and learning its unspoken rules — an experience common to the many immigrants whose stories intersect with those of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan.

Unlike other journalists, who limited their coverage to the American half of the Tsarnaevs’ lives, Gessen follows the family across the map. The book includes a short history of the Chechen nation, which is often left out of Russia-centric accounts of that region’s violent past. Here, The Brothers overlaps with Gessen’s book on Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face, in which she outlines how Chechens are perceived — and presented — as a threat that requires the president’s firm hand and constant military presence in the North Caucasus. The trauma of the Chechen wars has shaped the experience of both expats and people still living in the region, and the Tsarnaevs’ story is one of its unexpected aftershocks.

The Brothers begins with a disclaimer of sorts: “This book, however, is not about that pain [of those who suffered loss and trauma because of the bombings]. It is about something that, whatever evidence is unearthed, will never be entirely certain: it is about the tragedy that preceded the bombing, the reasons that led to it, and its invisible victims.” The invisible victims are named: Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan who was killed during an interrogation by the FBI; Dzhokhar’s friends Robel Phillipos, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, young men who face decades in prison because their bad, uninformed decisions amounted to obstructing the investigation; and the members of the Chechen community who were immediately seen as suspect by association.

These stories serve as evidence for Gessen’s larger arguments about the inadequate and harmful methods of the ill-defined “war on terror,” which is quick to equate being a Muslim with being a threat and treats families and support systems as if they were made up of potential accomplices. Gessen cites terrorism scholars who reject the FBI’s assumptions that terrorism is the end stage of a gradual process of radicalization, a theory that has shaped policy and media coverage of terrorist acts. Specialists agree that most people who hold radical views do not commit violence, and that most terrorists are otherwise “normal” people — the Tsarnaevs fit this profile, and there is no evidence that they were “radicalized” by a close friend or a large terrorist network. The FBI’s idea of terrorism does not explain what happened to the Tsarnaev brothers or what they did, and the bureau’s investigation wrought havoc on innocent families and communities in its pursuit of a radicalized network. Gessen’s own investigation ends with a conclusion that inverts the logic of the FBI radicalization theory: “The people in key roles in this story are few, the ideas they hold are uncomplicated, and the plans they conjure are anything but far reaching. It was the hardest and most frightening kind of story to believe.”

Gessen’s previous two books were remarkable for their smooth translations of events in contemporary Russia — Putin’s rise to power and the efforts of his opposition, and the trial and imprisonment of the members of dissident punk band Pussy Riot — that provided the context necessary for a wider audience not fluent in the language of these news items. The Brothers follows in their lineage. The book ends before Tsarnaev’s trial began; the jury has since found him guilty on all 30 counts stemming from the bombings and chose the death sentence over life in prison as his punishment. It is all but certain that his lawyers will appeal, and while the story spins to account for Tsarnaev’s Americanness or otherness and his relatives comment on the Boston trial from Dagestan or Kazakhstan, Gessen fills in the missing links and explains what it is like to know, or come from, all of these places at the same time. 


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