What Motivated the Boston Bombers

New details emerge every day, raising more questions. But the outlines of the stomach-churning story seem clear. Two young men, brothers who emigrated from Kyrgyzstan twelve years ago with their parents and sisters—high-achieving, “well-assimilated” immigrant men—planted bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring well over 250. They killed an MIT campus policeman for no apparent reason, hijacked an SUV, engaged in a gunfight with police, and sowed citywide fear for five days. Both self-identified as Chechens, although neither grew up nor spent much time in the Russian republic of Chechnya; and as Muslims, although the older was the observant one, the younger a pot-smoking (maybe pot-dealing) Hennessey drinker. The older held a green card and had applied for U.S. citizenship but had been denied it.

How to define these men, and to describe the event? Let us step back and survey the big picture.

Racism and Islamophobia Shape the Coverage

The U.S. remains a deeply racist society, the nature of its racism always evolving, old targets forgotten, new targets found. The habit of hate does not diminish but merely seeks new objects. The “No Irish Need Apply” signs of the 1860s (here in my city of Boston) are a distant historical memory after the election of presidents of Irish descent. Young people in the Obama era can hardly imagine the Jim Crow laws in the South in effect to the 1960s. The Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s are treated officially as a national shame. Old racisms survive of course (just consider the Black unemployment and incarceration rates) but new ones more energetically flourish. Especially since 9/11, Middle Eastern ethnicities have been popular targets. Hate crimes against people appearing to be of Middle Eastern origin quadrupled in the following year.

After the 9/11 attacks, it was not difficult for those promoting a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq to win over the majority of people in this country. They were able to convince them that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots. They argued this based on contrived evidence too thin to persuade any critical mind, but that was not the point. The war-mongers knew they could rely on the (sometimes subconscious) racist reasoning: the attackers were Arabs, Saddam is an Arab, they all hate America, they must be working together to attack us, we must defend ourselves by preventative action. The plan worked, as it could not have if the “us vs. them,” essentializing anti-Arabism had not resonated somewhere deep in the American soul.

Most people in this country are unclear about the distinctions between Arabs, Iranians and Turks (the three major ethic groups in the Middle East), much less distinctions within the Arab nations. So when a “War on Terror” was declared, and targets as in fact dissimilar as al-Qaeda, Iraq, Yassir Arafat, Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, Syria, a tiny faction of Iraqi Kurds, etc. lumped together and labeled “terrorist,” the way was paved, psychologically and ideologically, for ongoing war against anyone in the Middle East.  GIs in Iraq decorated their barracks with posters showing images of bin Laden alongside images with Saddam, linking them both to 9/11, urging the troops to see their occupation of Iraq as somehow retaliation for those attacks.

What is more racist than that—the deliberate exploitation of irrational hatred of Arabs and basic ignorance and gullibility, to trick people into supporting a vicious, imperialist war that has killed perhaps a million Iraqis and destroyed that proud country? It’s the same exploitation of irrational hatred that results in 99% of people in the U.S. polled stating that they believe Iran’s military nuclear program is a threat to the U.S. (No matter that every responsible intelligence agency affirms that Iran does not have a military nuclear program!)

The mainstream media and political forces shaping it have not thus far promoted fear of Chechens (only about a million people) in the ways they’ve promoted fear of Arabs (and Iranians). But for many the term “Chechen” lingers in the mind, vaguely associated with violent far-off actions involving Russia since the 1990s. There’s never been a campaign to specifically vilify Chechens in this country; indeed, prominent U.S. neocons have for their own purposes sometimes taken up the cause of Chechen separatism. But over the last week, repeated references in the media to Chechnya’s violent past (and such episodes as the Dubrovka Theater seizure in 2002), have conveyed an image of Chechens as a people inclined towards terrorism. In this context, it’s important to be clear on how the brothers accused in the Boston terror attacks actually relate to Chechnya.

These Are Not “Chechen Terrorists”

Tamerlan was, and Dzhokhar is, an immigrant from the Central Asian country of Kyrgystan (which is 1500 miles away from Chenya, a republic within Russia, located in the Caucasus). The brothers’ father is of Chechen ethnicity, but he was born and lived in Kyrgystan until 2001. The mother is of Avar ethnicity, from the Russian republic of Dagestan; she met the father in Kalmykia, another Russian republic in the Caucasus, while both of them were studying there. Tamerlan was born there but grew up in Kyrgystan. He was thus a Russian-born Kyrgyz national who reportedly also acquired Russian citizenship, and happened to be half-Avar, half-Chechen. Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgystan. In 2001 the family moved to Dagestan for a year before arriving in the Boston area. While the family occasionally revisited Dagestan and visited relatives in nearby Chechnya, and the boys self-identified as “Chechen” in social media and advocated Chechen independence, there is no evidence that they had any links to Chechen organizations of any kind. The brothers’ ethnic identity does not explain their behavior.

What of their religion? Racism in this country has often been linked to religious bigotry. Anti-Catholicism once went hand-in-hand with opposition to Irish and Italian immigration. Islamophobia, fanned by Hollywood sterotyping and somewhat more subtly by the mainstream news media, accompanies racist feelings towards Arabs and those who may appear Arab; many people are unaware that not all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are not Arabs. They imagine a vague “raghead” category to despise on ethnic as well as religious grounds.

The Tsarnaevs are of course Muslims. As such, they are part of a community which (by many, at least) was automatically suspected of responsibility for the Boston bombings. In the first hours after the Marathon blasts, CNN announced: “Police looking for dark skinned or black male with foreign accent.” Fox News reported Monday that police were holding a suspect—a 20-year-old Saudi who’d been tackled by a bystander as he ran from the bombing scene—in a hospital. Wednesday the New York Post published photos of two Middle Eastern-looking men in the Marathon crowd, stating that they were “being distributed by law-enforcement officials among themselves.” These photos were soon all over the Internet.

Nothing ever came of the dark-skinned foreign male story. The story about the Saudi was false. Police denied he was a “suspect.” In any case the young man, a student, agreed to let the FBI search his home. After agents hauled away crates of his property and interrogated his roommate for five hours, he was cleared. The New York Post story was similarly false. One of the men falsely identified as a suspect, a seventeen-year-old high school student from Morocco, was shocked and obliged to visit a police station to clear his name.

The assumption that a foreign terrorist must be responsible was expressed repeatedly by Boston police Commissioner Ed Davis, whom last Friday as police searched Watertown for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev declared, “We believe this to be a man who came here to kill people.” But Dzhokhar, a U.S. citizen, came here as a second-grader. (One might think that fact would settle the matter. But no, former UN ambassador John Bolton, one of the most obvious and hideous liars in diplomatic history, told Greta Van Susteran on Fox last Friday, “These people [Chechens] are killers.  Make no mistake about it,” adding that “There have been child soldiers throughout history” and implying that indeed, some terrorist organization may have sent the boys to Boston a dozen years ago to eventually kill.)

With each report suggesting Muslim responsibility for the attack the blogosphere resounded with Islamophobes gloating: See? Just like I’ve been saying… Fox News guest commentator Erik Rush, asked on Tuesday if he blamed Muslims for the attack, tweetered, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” (How likely is it that Rush will be detained for questioning as an advocate of terrorism?) He was not the only one positively hoping that Muslims were to blame. Meanwhile some of us (not only Muslims, but nonbelievers like myself) were hoping it was anyone else. I myself was hoping this, not due to any special affinity with Muslims, but due to my aversion for the Islamophobia that provides fuel for those advocating further U.S attacks on the Muslim world (including Syria and Iran in the crosshairs).

But so what, you might ask, if racism and Islamophobia have been evident in this case from the day of the bombings, April 15? The bombers were Muslims and self-identified Chechens, whom we learn accessed militant Islamist websites. Why does it even  matter to know more?

Social Alienation, or Anti-war Outrage?

Here’s why it matters. Today’s headlines include “Boston Bombing Suspects Motivated by Iraq, Afghanistan Wars.” The world responds with a resounding: Well, duh… 

Of course they were motivated by those wars! That’s a no-brainer.

Hitherto media speculation has focused on “alienation,” maladjustment, inability to fit in. Even today MSNBC highlights “Tamerlan: I don’t have a single American friend.” How many times have we heard that quote, sometimes cited (falsely) as a Facebook statement by the older brother (as though he wanted to broadcast his friendlessness)? It was in fact a comment in a photo package made by a Boston University student as a journalism project in 2010 and posted online.

“I don’t have a single American friend.” Tsarnaev is quoted as saying. “I don’t understand them.” But this is contradicted by a photo of his girlfriend in the same package, and the caption that “Tamerlab  (sic) says his girlfriend is half Portuguese, half Italian…and converted to Islam: ‘She’s beautiful, man!’” It seems he had multiple local girlfriends before getting married. It’s been reported that he and his brother used to throw courtyard parties in Cambridge, before Tamerlan at his mother’s urging began to get, in her words, “more and more into his religion.”

It’s also reported he had a friend named Brendan Mess, who he introduced as his “best friend” to others at the martial arts training center he frequented. (Yes, it has been reported that he may have killed him, but that’s another story.) Tamerlan’s variously depicted as outgoing and taciturn, perhaps suggesting an evolution in his personality. But as an accomplished, admired athlete, an aspiring Olympic boxer, wanting to compete for the U.S. rather than Russia; as something of a dandy in his dress habits, even while in Dagestan last year according to an aunt; as a fan of the satirical Borat film; and as an aspirant to U.S. citizenship he hardly seems a friendless, alienated creature driven to bomb by hatred of the culture.

Meanwhile evidence for the younger Dzhokhar’s considerable popularity among students and teachers at Rindge and Latin High School and at U-Mass Dartmouth, his music tastes and partying habits has made it difficult to attribute his actions to any fundamental rejection of U.S. culture. Scratching their heads many commentators opine that he must have been manipulated by his more “radicalized” elder brother. In other words, in his case too the rage  is rooted in a pathology of cultural conflict (the irreconcilability of America and Islam).

But no. It appears that while Tamerlan faulted U.S. society for various moral ills, and immersed himself in Muslim religiosity several years ago, giving up drinking and even (at his mother’s request) renouncing boxing and martial arts for religious reasons, his motive to attack random U.S. citizens was not to express his frustration at his own failure to adapt to U.S. life. Rather, it was outrage at U.S. wars in Muslim countries which have undeniably produced mass slaughter. This outrage itself need not be traced to his ethnicity or religion. Indeed, it is the global norm. (How many Christian Europeans now support the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?)

What’s Wrong with “Radicalization” ?

The mainstream media continually refers to the brothers’ turn towards terrorism as “radicalization.” I personally resent that, as a radical, having been “radicalized” as a teenager during the Vietnam War. (Marx wrote that “To be radical means to grasp things by the root,” that is, to comprehend the real origins of problems.) I came to understand that conflict as a vicious, criminal, unjustifiable war that wasn’t just some anomaly but rather par for the course in U.S. history. Many young people have been radicalized by knowledge of the realities of the Iraq and Afghan wars. They’ve come to understand that they live in an imperialist country run by a 1% who care nothing for human life, whose military does not even bother to keep figures on civilian casualties. Such radicalization is entirely appropriate. May it spread!

What the media should really address is not “radicalization” but the gradual embrace of a specific idea found only on the margins of Islam: the idea that it is justified in the eyes of God (Allah) to kill innocent civilians in some circumstances if in so doing one protects the Muslim community. You don’t find that in the Qur’an, but in some fringe interpretations of one or two hadiths of the Prophet, actions such as the 9/11 bombings are justified. To embrace that proposition is not to become “radical” but to become criminally sociopathetic. What really seems to have happened was that the brothers were increasingly drawn to a terror-validating strain of extreme Islam, which the preponderance of Muslims see as a travesty of the religion.

Imperialism vs. Islamism: A Vicious Circle

Any number of military and civilian intelligence studies have shown that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated more, not fewer, terrorists and more, not less “anti-Americanism” (meaning: outrage at all the lies, the torture, the Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamos, the “extraordinary renditions,” the insults to Islam ranging from Qur’an burnings to urinating on militants’ dead bodies, the incessant drone strikes, the support from the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East, the baseless threats against Iran, the slavish support for Israel as it continues to occupy Palestinian land and abuse Palestinians at will, etc.). There is really no question about it. One has to be as deeply in denial as the Tsarnaev boys’ mom to think otherwise.

But you see, the media morons who reject such clear analysis as (weird, puzzling) self-hatred—a desire to “blame America first”—have to posit instead the “us versus them” theme and a narrative in which the Muslims attack us not for any wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. but because “they hate our freedoms.” They have to demand that we all shut down our minds, agree that Islam, not imperialism, is the fundamental problem—and then use more violence to contain the ongoing threat.

The war on terror, Dick Cheney predicted, would last beyond his lifetime. The neocons-led wars in the so-called “Greater Middle East” since 2001 indeed seem to constitute a new Crusade. Recall that the medieval Crusades lasted two hundred years, producing scars and resentment that remain to this day. Those wars focused specifically on religion, while these are waged by U.S. governments that deny any religious prejudices at all, even while relying on racism and religious bigotry to win support.

The Tsarnaev brothers deserve little sympathy. Their acts were vicious and unforgiveable. They were probably designed to inflict random pain, in retaliation for random pain. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” say both the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24) and the Qur’an (5:45). Those combining simplistic, bigoted thinking with a fundamental disregard for life targeted whole peoples for retribution after the 9/11 attacks, launching incomparably more destructive, more hate-producing assaults in its wake. It is hardly surprising that those assaulted respond, as best they can, with their “weapons of the weak” in kind.

It is not only radical Salafists who find it useful and justifiable to inflict terror on random civilians. What were the Tokyo bombings of World War II (that in the words of Gen. Curtis LeMay were designed to “scorch and boil and bake to death” 100,000 Japanese civilians); or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 civilians; or the No Gun Ri Massacre in the Korean War; or the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War, but terrorist acts? Acts of calculated craziness, designed to horrify, to persuade the targeted that the U.S.A. can do whatever the hell it wants, following its own rules?

And what is the supposition that such actions will have no consequences, other than a dangerous illusion—one as baseless as the Tsarnaev brothers’ supposition that they could walk away from the crime scene smiling and go on with their lives as usual?

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu