The Terrorist “Radicalization” of the Tsarnaev Brothers

Where, how, when, why and by whom were the Tsarnaev brothers “radicalized”? These are the questions mainstream journalism poses and strives to answer. But one antonym of “radical”—“superficial”—describes this line of approach.

Leave aside the fact that “radicalization” is a vague, unhelpful concept without any definite political or moral content, and that many of us have been radicalized about various matters in appropriate, positive ways. In the 1960s, a sort of “radicalization” was a function of political awareness and decency. (What was “radical” then—opposition to the Vietnam War, support for Black Power, women’s liberation, gay rights—is hardly controversial today.) This use of language insults (leftist, Marxist, anti-imperialist) radicals such as myself and posits implicitly a collaborationist “moderation” as the desired norm. But the main problem with this approach is that it obfuscates the real issue: how did the brothers come to believe that it was okay to kill random civilians?

You Shouldn’t Kill, But…

For most people it’s difficult to fathom. What’s more fundamental to the social contract underlying human society than the rule, “You shall not kill”? The principle is enshrined in all law codes and religious traditions. Still, these same traditions allow, even sometimes mandate, exceptions.

The same Laws of Moses that state “You shall not kill” require the execution of adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22) and any man “who lies with” other men (Leviticus 20:13). Worse, the same god who sets down the law orders his Chosen People to wipe out whole peoples. He obliges the Hebrew leader Joshua to execute the “curse of destruction” on the city of Jericho: “man and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep and the donkeys, slaughtering them all” (Joshua 6:21).  The Lord of Hosts orders King Saul to punish the Amalakites for deeds of their ancestors: “Now, go and crush Amalek: put him under the curse of destruction with all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3).

One could go on and on with such citations, but I do not mean to solely target the Judeo-Christian tradition (or the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, since these three Abrahamic faiths all draw upon Old Testament myths and values).  Pagans’ moral codes similarly banned killing but with various exceptions.  The Vikings had firm laws against homicide within their own communities. But when off on raids on the coasts of Britain, Ireland or France they had no qualms about slaughtering at random. Going a-viking was to take a break from the normal morals practiced around the fjords.

Normal domestic morality can contrast with the morality applied towards outsiders. This was  nicely illustrated in 1944 when 13% of people polled in the U.S. declared that U.S. troops should “kill all Japanese.” On just one night in March 1945 U.S. forces killed 100,000 men, women and children in Tokyo through conventional bombing. This was the calculated intention; Gen. Curtis LeMay boasted of his desire to “scorch and boil and bake to death” countless Japanese. (LeMay went on to become the vice-presidential candidate on a ticket headed by segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.) The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000 more. Those ordering the strikes could justify in their own minds this deliberate infliction of terror. Truman felt no qualms about dropping nukes on babies. Why not?

Because they attacked us. So don’t they deserve to be bombed?

Surely there were other factors at play, not least of which was racism, which helps to explain the massive civilian death toll in the Korean, Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars as well. It’s easier to slaughter people if you think them less human than you. My point is just that the notion of collective guilt justified, and continues to justify, random butchery.

This willingness to conflate civilians and military, the guilty and the innocent, by virtue of nationality, and to kill “man and women, young and old,” is a feature of terrorist mentality. We are accustomed to associating it with “militant Islamists,” “Muslim extremists.” Some people associate it with Islam in general, although one searches the Qur’an in vain for tales of divinely ordered genocide such as those that occur in the Bible. But how many innocent civilians have been killed by Muslim terrorist attacks in the last century, and how many by U.S. bombs and U.S.-backed death squads?

Why Did the Tsarnaevs Come to Think It Was Right to Kill?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told his interrogators that he and his brother were spurred to set off bombs in Boston on Marathon Monday by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  That this should be the catalyst is unsurprising. A 2003 UN-commissioned study found that the “War on Terror” was in fact increasing terrorism. Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and head of the International Crisis Group, noted the same thing in 2004: “The unhappy truth is that the net result of the war on terror, so far at least, has been more war and more terror.” A 2006 National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies stated that the Iraq war had “made the overall terrorism problem worse.”

Some become “terrorists” (or, in some cases, decide to take up arms against U.S. occupiers and invaders, whom Washington and the Pentagon might regard as terrorists—or “illegal combatants”—although we should feel free to question such designations) because a loved one perished in a drone attack or was tortured during interrogation. They are motivated by personal vengeance and honor. Others see fellow Muslims somewhere victimized by the U.S. and hear the call to jihad in some far-off country. Others opt to vent their fury by blowing up random people in what they see as the belly of the beast.

Let’s imagine that the Tsarnaev brothers were indeed outraged by the things that offend many normal people. Let’s imagine that both came to see the war in Iraq, raging from 2003 (when the boys were 9 and 16) to 2011 (when they were 16 and 24) for what it really was: a war based on lies, producing over 100,000 civilian deaths. A horrendous war crime with enduring horrific repercussions for which no one has ever been tried or held to account.

No doubt they saw the disgusting photos of the humiliation and torture of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad made public in 2004. They could have made an impression on eleven and eighteen year old boys. Perhaps they learned that such treatment of Muslim prisoners, most of them charged with nothing and entirely innocent, was typical in Bagram in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo as well. One can imagine some feelings of indignation.

Maybe they saw the cockpit gunsight footage of the Apache helicopter attack over Baghdad in 2007, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, showing pilots and ground crew cavalierly discussing the killing of a dozen innocent Iraqi men including two Reuters employees. “Come on, let us shoot!” shouts someone requesting permission to fire as a van pulls up. The shooting resumes, injuring two children who were being driven to school. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one pilot says.

Maybe they were outraged, like regular decent folks, at the gunners’ bloodlust (maybe bolstered by the false belief that they were avenging the 9/11 victims). That outrage itself would have been entirely appropriate, would it have not?

Who is an Innocent Civilian?

Of course one should distinguish between those responsible for all these crimes and the people of this country, like you and me. That’s indeed our premise in asking: how did these young men ever come to think otherwise?

But the distinction between the culpable regime and the innocent “American people” becomes muddied when you read polls showing that as recently as March 42% of the people in the U.S. believe the Iraq War was “not a mistake,” while (only) 53% believe otherwise. That forty-two percent of the U.S. adult population is roughly one hundred million people. Their opinions shouldn’t damn them; they are in any case largely shaped by the mass media, the pulpit and their own ignorance. But the fact that there is so much popular support at any particular time for U.S. atrocities among the people of this country (and sometimes it is overwhelming!) must make many around the world question the presumption of our collective innocence.

Why, they surely ask, do the Americans enjoying the “freedom” to participate in elections, always elect these people who attack, invade and bomb us? Why do they not drive them from power when they do? Why do they instead re-elect them, and never prosecute any leaders for war crimes? If their government is really “theirs”—freely chosen and supported—are they not our enemies as much as their leaders?

(By the way: is it not also an outrage that these polls in the aftermath of wars, including those in Vietnam and Iraq, always give the respondent the two options “mistake?” or “not a mistake”? Those responsible for war are thus assumed to have had good intentions. There is no way to respond: “I believe it was a calculated crime.” This tells the world something about U.S. capacity for self-criticism.)

The distinction between regime and people also blurs when you read that 65% of U.S. residents polled support the drone strikes producing more terror in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Or even when you go to Fenway Park in Boston, just wanting to enjoy the baseball, and are forced to listen to the requisite tributes to “our heroes” supposedly “defending our freedoms,” and note the enthusiastic crowd response to any mention of “our men and women in uniform.” Must it not sound to many like applause for the slaughter of innocents?

And mustn’t the sight of crowds of flag-wavers chanting USA! USA! USA!, aggressively affirming their pride in “their” country (uniting implicitly with the 1% who actually control this country) send chills down any conscious person’s spine? This after all sounds very much like this.

One might compassionately think, “Well, these people are ignorant, brainwashed.” Or one might think, these people are just evil. If you are a Muslim, part of a community under constant surveillance and suspicion, you might see every unprovoked U.S. killing of Muslims abroad as an attack on yourself. Is not mindless U.S. patriotism and knee-jerk support for each new war also a threat to yourself? How then to respond?

The U.S. responded to an attack on itself by some Muslims twelve years ago by attacking numerous Muslims with no connection to the attack. The ongoing slaughter in Afghanistan has nothing to do with al-Qaeda and 9/11 but is rather an effort to contain the resurgent Taliban (who are not and never were the same as al-Qaeda) and aligned forces fighting to topple the U.S.-imposed, highly corrupt, unpopular Karzai regime. In this effort, as in Iraq, U.S. forces are killing civilians with impunity.

The moral question thus arises: If George W. Bush could slaughter Iraqi civilians in the name of fighting Muslim extremism, and if Barack Obama can bomb innocents in several Muslim countries virtually at will, why can’t Muslims kill U.S. civilians in the name of fighting back? Isn’t it a matter of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” as it says in the Bible (Exodus 21:24; see also the Qur’an 2:178)? At some point the older brother seems to have concluded precisely thus.

One should mention that there’s actually a difference between the tribal mentality “us vs. them” and the “eye for an eye” principle. The latter was apparently intended to curb the practice of indiscriminate and disproportionate revenge. Rather than killing everyone in the neighboring village for the death of one of your own at the hands of one of theirs, you just kill one and call it even. (I won’t digress on the irony involved in the fact that contemporary Israeli leaders, in effect rejecting Exodus 21:24, boast of their deliberately “disproportionate responses” to any attack on themselves. It is an effort to terrify all foes.)

In the history of religion one sees a further evolution from this “eye for an eye” principle to the (arguably higher) principle of forgiveness. Thus we find in the Buddhist Dhammapada:

“How will hate leave him if a man forever thinks,

‘He abused me, he hit me, he defeated me, he robbed me’?

Will hate ever touch him if he does not think,

‘He abused me, he hit me, he defeated me, he robbed me’?

There is only one eternal law:

Hate never destroys hate: only love does.”

And of course Jesus is supposed to have said (Matthew 5:38):

“You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if someone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well…” In the theology of St. Paul, the “New Law” of Christian forgiveness supersedes the “Old Law” of retribution of Mosaic law.

But such refined thoughts have rarely impacted the behavior of modern states. Indeed the rule has been: “Isn’t it ok to make them feel our pain—by killing their children, so rich in hope and promise, shattering their peace of mind as they go about their lives, actively or just tacitly supporting their government that has provoked us?” That’s how Gen. Curtis LeMay felt, surely, in waging his war without mercy. I think this is how the Tsarnaevs also came to feel.

Some Comparisons

On April 15,  the brothers’ bombs killed two young women and a little boy, occasioning a national outpouring of grief and countless tributes to the imagined bravery of we Bostonians and the heroism of local police.

On that same day in Baghdad, according to Iraq Body Count, 30 civilians were killed by car bombs and IEDs for reasons directly connected to the U.S. invasion and occupation. In all 62 were killed in Iraq by bombs or gunfire for such reasons, just another typical day in that wrecked country.

On the same day, nine Afghan civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war sparked by the invasion and occupation. A roadside bomb killed seven. Four were killed by an IED the next day. A week before U.S. airstrikes had killed 17 civilians including 12 children in Kunar province; the public clamor forced President Karzai to order U.S. special forces out of the province.

According to NATO, 475 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict from January to March of this year. In Iraq, 561 civilians were killed in bombings or shootings in April alone. Such is the magnitude of suffering inflicted by U.S. imperialism on just these two countries within the Muslim world. Meanwhile Libya is worse off then ever after getting “liberated” by U.S.-NATO bombing; Mali suffers from the fallout of the Libya intervention; Syria and Iran remain in the U.S. crosshairs; and in Yemen resentment smolders at the drone strikes (up to 54 in April alone).

Some Muslim clerics—one must stress, a tiny minority—look at this big picture and say, “Islam is under attack from the U.S.  It is our religious obligation to defend our brothers and sisters. Since we cannot defeat this enemy through conventional ways, we must use terror to make them realize there is a price for their own terror.” It is precisely the sentiment conveyed by an unknown Hebrew poet two and a half millennia ago, in venting his rage against the Babylonians who’d conquered and dispersed his people:

Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction,

A blessing on anyone

Who treats you as you treated us,

A blessing on anyone who seizes your babies

And shatters them against a rock!

Spine-chilling you say? Yet it is, for Jews and Christians, Holy Writ: the ending of Psalm 137:8-9. And you will find no end of Jewish and Christian cleric-bloggers who jump to its defense. “One of the unsurpassed biblical hymns of all time,” says one. “Nowhere does it say that God approves of the Psalmist’s request,” writes another, “ or that he fulfilled it.  Just because it is recorded that the Psalmist wrote the imprecation, doesn’t mean it was approved by God.” Another writes: “Now the psalmist says that soon someone will destroy Babylon. He was right!” Others write that the poet is simply expressing satisfaction that prophecy will be fulfilled.

An Eye for an Eye, Including Your Baby’s

But there’s really no question that this justifies mass-murder, or at least surely did, for some people, for a period of time. It is more than “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It’s “the eye or the tooth of any of your people including the innocent child” or rather an expression of the notion that there are no “innocents” in this great conflict between the People of God and their enemies. There is no great leap between this (sick) mentality and that of the occasional Islamic imam who depicts everyone in this country as an appropriate target.

But did the Tsarnaevs need some sort of religious-political mentor (the mysterious Misha, William Plotnikov, Mansur Nidal, Awlaki) to make the leap from mere outrage to the righteous shattering of babies against the rock?  Or was the moral model already at hand, there in the wars based on lies, in the Abu Ghraib photos, the Blackwater Baghdad murders of Sept. 2007, the Baghdad collateral murder video?

“It’s their fault for bringing their kids,” said the pilot in the leaked video, proud to have picked off eight Iraqis. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, proud to have killed three Bostonians, might say with precisely the same degree of moral legitimacy, “It’s their fault for attacking Muslim kids!”

To fail to understand this is to invite the endless exchange of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. One senses this was what Osama bin Laden wanted when he planned or approved the 9/11 attacks. He reasoned that the U.S. would launch a general crusade, including attacks on targets with nothing to do with al-Qaeda (like Iraq) thereby uniting more Muslims in hostility to itself. Prompting more terrorism, it would respond with more, begetting more in response, and so on, polarizing the world, drawing an ever firmer line between the west and a revived Islam with visions of a new global Caliphate. Could he have imagined that two irreligious Avar-Chechen boys from Kirgizia, growing up in the U.S., would ever climb aboard the jihadi-terrorist bandwagon?

He probably wouldn’t have been surprised, supposing that the course of events itself would “radicalize” those hitherto apathetic. An online al-Qaeda publication reportedly urges supporters in western countries to stay at home and take action in their own countries. The current leaders probably think that exploits like the Marathon bombing will sharpen the sense of “us vs. them,” produce anti-Muslim backlashes, leading to more violence within clearer battle lines, paving the way to ultimate victory. The vision, while insane and impossible, acquires more resonance with each new report of a Muslim civilian death at U.S. hands.

Radicalized Here or There? What Difference Does It Make?

Gandhi is supposed to have said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The even more primitive “us vs. them” mentality has long since blinded most of the political class and the mainstream media.

In the face of the Boston tragedy, all they can ask is, “Were the boys radicalized abroad? Or did it happen here?” Rephrased: Was their decision to express their outrage at the Iraq and Afghan wars through terrorism something implanted in their minds by Muslims met abroad, in dangerous mosques in Dagestan or Chechnya? Or did it stem from their own failure to assimilate into U.S. society, and a hatred towards this country rooted in their own hereditary religion? Either way the issue becomes merely us versus “radical Islam”—leaving the wars unmentioned, as though they played only a marginal role in the boys’ “radicalization.”

The blind are leading the blind. George W. Bush’s instinct the day of 9/11 was to attack Iraq! and to declare an indefinite “War on Terror” against anyone who could be smeared with the charge of supporting “terrorists” or pursuing WMD programs. Never mind that these are very different phenomena in themselves, or that the U.S. supports terrorists on occasion and also maintains half the world’s nuclear arsenal. While insisting publicly that the U.S. was not  against Islam (gosh, he wondered, why would anyone think that?) Bush used ignorant anti-Muslim sentiment to garner support for his war on Iraq, depicting that war as one of response to 9/11.

“You’re for us or against us,” he bellowed, obviously and shamelessly invoking Jesus’ statement “Anyone who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30), to divide the world in two. Obama has not stepped back from that crude Manicheanism. He criticized the Iraq War as a “strategic blunder” but has never questioned the morality of using the “us versus them” mentality to garner support for that criminal act. Instead he has praised Iraq War vets as “heroes”  and pointedly declined to direct the Justice Department to pursue any charges against officials responsible for a criminal war.

He has always embraced the invasion of Afghanistan, sharply escalating it while terrorizing the people of neighboring Pakistan presumed collectively responsible for aiding the Taliban(s) that now flourish in both countries. He contemplates attacks on targets in Syria, Iran, perhaps Mali, that pose no more threat to you or me than Saddam’s imagined WMDs.

Much of humankind sees all this. It is not blinded. It looks on in unease if not horror at the scale and impunity of U.S. violence. If it becomes radicalized (in a positive life-affirming way), it is not by religion or a passion for holy war, but by natural human revulsion at the antics of a wounded Cyclops—the one-eyed monster that is twenty-first century U.S. imperialism.

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:


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: