The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy.

AuthorSmith, Anthony
PositionBook review


The Road to a Modern Tragedy

Author: Masha Gessen

Published by. Scribe, Melbourne, 2015, 273pp, A$29.99.

On 15 April 2013, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 264 others. Much of what was reported at the time turned out to be incorrect.

The question of what the brothers were trying to achieve looms large in this particular case, but, as this book explains, answering it is not an easy assignment. Tamerlan was killed during the manhunt, and Dzhokhar has not made a full public confession beyond an attempted apology to his victims during his trial. Dzhokhar was also sentenced to death in a federal trial. There may be a lot that is never known about this case, probably partly dependent on whether Dzhokhar can successfully appeal and/or delay his execution.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of the Tsarnaev story, aside from the obvious devastation caused during the Boston Marathon, is how ordinary the perpetrators were. Tamerlan's 'American Dream' had not panned out in the way that he expected--although that must be true for many others--while Dzhokhar had quite promising academic prospects. What is quite unusual in this case is that Chechen separatists and militants have not had a history of attacking Western targets. In fact the brothers' connection to Chechnya was not that strong; their father was a Chechen, while their mother was an ethnic Avar--a mixed marriage that appears to have put up some barriers in the confusing patchwork of north Caucasus. The family was not in Chechnya during the periods of conflict there. The Tsarnaev family had in fact bounced between Kyrgyzstan (the family's point of origin as many Chechens were moved there during Stalin's mass evacuation of the population), Dagestan and the United States. A formative experience for Tamerlan had been a stint as an adult in Dagestan (but not Chechnya), where he encountered Islamist elements. They may have radicalised him in a political and religious sense, although there is not yet any evidence he received any military-type training. On what is known to date, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar appear to have been lone actors. Furthermore, Gessen, who has interviewed as many contacts as she can find, notes that those she spoke to in Dagestan were struck by the superficiality with which Tamerlan understood Islam. But Tamerlan's growing Muslim consciousness was married with some pre-existing political notions that...

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