The Hard Lessons of the Boston Marathon Massacre

Many years ago my husband, then a trusts-and-estates attorney, opened a bank safe deposit box belonging to a client who had recently passed away.  Astonished, he found himself looking down at a weight of gold.  Why had such a wealthy woman squirreled away bullion?  Answer:  as a child in Belgium during the Second World War, the lesson she took away from those years is that a person can never stash away too much.


Her hoarding was a manifestation of what psychiatrists called “German war baby syndrome.”  A darker, sadder example, again from years past, was a friend’s German husband, his father killed on the Eastern Front, who spent his childhood foraging for scraps of food in American G.I. trash bins.  Brilliant, charismatic, he had a lucrative business career in the United States as well as his much-loved American family–who, nevertheless, he deprived of the day-to-day necessities in order to build a financial bulwark against possible future catastrophe.  His life did not end well.


When I think about evil, I remember these two American immigrants.  Their lives are a reminder that evil acts grow long tentacles deep into, far into, the future, sometimes with incidental effect (the Belgian woman), sometimes with tragic (my friend’s husband).  This woman and this man were good people, whose adult minds, choices and actions were shaped by a German war of aggression long-since history.


This is the significance of Chechnya in the lives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who perpetrated the horrific violence that began with their pressure-cooker bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Before emigrating to the United States, neither brother ever lived in Chechnya. Neither was born there. But they were ethnic Chechens, their parents part of the diaspora fleeing the homeland.  And the misery and violence, death and destruction–the evil–executed by Russia against Chechnya has now extended tendrils here, to America.


What grievance has Chechnya against America? None.  In the early days of the post-Soviet oppression of the Chechens, we spoke out against Russia’s actions.  But violence begets violence (Chechens have executed blood-soaked terrorist attacks against Russians, in reply). Grievance has been implanted.  And a shard of that grievance, understandably a component of every Chechen’s identity, was embedded in the Tsarnaev brothers’ violence.  Precisely where embedded, we do not yet know. To the extent a reflexive sense of grievance was a prime mover for the Tsarnaev act of terrorism, we do not know.  We may never know.


But the lesson here is vigilance against, and respect for, the long arm of evil. The effects of Russian brutality against Chechnya have now extended as far as an iconic American sports event.  Today I am reminded of Martin Luther’s declaration, in his great hymn in praise of and reliance on God, that nevertheless–but still “Our ancient Foe/doth seek to work us woe; His [Satan’s] wrath and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”


The second lesson the Tsarnaev brothers teach us is the importance of family.  Theirs was dysfunctional, primarily because the head of the family, their father, returned to Russia (specifically the subject state of Dagestan), leaving his impoverished wife and children to fend for themselves in a place where they were not acculturated and not feeling part of a community.  (At some point, the brothers’ mother, although separated from her husband, also moved to Dagestan.)  There is a grim story here–and we do not yet have it–but we know there is a fuller account because so far the pieces we have do not fit together. 


Recently, Charles Murray has written about the decline of the American working class, using a lower middle class Boston neighborhood as one of his case studies in Coming Apart.  His is a compelling work, which has generated much discussion and some controversy.  But who, from the disputants to Murray himself, could have dreamed that his sobering analysis of joblessness, single parenthood and the weakening of familial, church and other community ties would find its Boston apotheosis not in, say, a meth epidemic but a killing spree tinged with colors of Islamic jihad? 


The Tsarnaev brothers have acted out Murray’s thesis, nevertheless.  Young people cannot thrive without two structures:  a job, or working/studying towards one that is a likely prospect; a community, with all the social and cultural expectations and strictures upon which a sense of community is built, including a strong belief in marriage and support of children as bedrock.


The third lesson we should take from Boston this week is more complicated–more complicated for one reason.  So far, we Americans have not been able to face it.  What is the lesson? 


The deleterious effects of individualism are waxing, not waning, in our society.


Allow me a few paragraphs to explain.


A frequent comment about the Tsarnaev brothers and their violence is that they are representative of the larger problem of alienation, and particularly the alienation of young men, in America today.  On the surface, this appears to be an apt observation.  Certainly, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar felt alienated. Their postings on social media, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, are testimony.


But when we place the brothers in a larger context, this argument for alienation as the prime mover for their terrible actions falls apart.  During the Great Depression, a decade of much greater joblessness and social upheaval, through forced migration (the Dust Bowl and other foreclosing on farms and homes), there was no talk of personal alienation as a reason for, say, the prevalence of small-town bank robberies.  In short, there was no excuse–no quarter given to explanation–however dire one’s personal circumstance, for bad acts.


An even more revealing comparison is with the Tea Party.  I have a few acquaintances in the Tea Party. I have written about the Tea Party.  Every day I get a plethora of emails from Tea Party groups and individuals.  And if you credit one thing that I tell you, take this:  there are no more alienated people in the United States today than Tea Partiers. Betrayed by the Republican leadership. Maligned in the mainstream press and by the liberal elites who shape much of our shared culture.  


Alienated, yes.  Bomb-throwers, no.  The various and sundry American Tea Parties and their members have used the rights of the American public square–the right of assembly, the right of free speech, the right to organize and to vote–to express their sense of grievance.  And the same can be argued for the Occupy Movement.


Therefore, alienation cannot be the prime mover of the violent acts of the Tsarnaev brothers and the other young American men perpetrating mass violence in recent years.  A lot of people in America are alienated, and yet they do not hurt others.


A second look at the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement reveal some significant differences.  Tea Partiers are mostly older folk.  The Occupy Movement was full of artists who by disposition were drawn to street theater, free-form and chaotic, and to anarchist manifestos, as ways to express grievance.


Public safety in numbers?  Yes, in a way.  Sometimes crowd mentality leads to violence, but more often the group constrains the individual impulse.  For surely over time the Tea Party and Occupy have attracted homicidal outliers, and yet the power of the group has contained personal behaviors.


The Tsarnaev brothers, however, were not part of a group.  Had they been, say, members of a local Muslim youth organization, however inflammatory and anti-western the group discussions, likely theirs would have been a different journey. 


What the Tsarnaev brothers did draw upon, however, was modern individualism, that sense of entitlement to personal expression, that need to be Somebody, or at least to get recognition for accomplishment or injury.  Individualism is an infection gone rampant in American culture–one that my father’s generation, the Greatest Generation who grew up in the Depression and fought the Nazis–would hardly fathom.


I can hear my father and his friends now.  You don’t like what’s happening to you? Suck it up. Shoulder your responsibilities.


My generation, and perhaps because we Baby Boomers are the bridge between the Greatest and the Offspring we have raised, have lived the shift in consciousness.  An example I often give is President Kennedy’s address to the nation, post-Sputnik, that we were now in a space race with Russia and therefore must concentrate more in math and science in our schools.  At that time, I was a student at a girls’ school where, perhaps because the curriculum was weak in math and science, none of us liked those subjects.


But it never occurred to any of us that our disinterest in math and science was a reason not to follow our President’s dictum.  Our personal desires were of no matter. We never thought–the idea never crossed our minds–that not liking what we were asked to do could, should or would factor in.  And so a generation of young Americans mastered at least the rudiments of math and science.  That was how we had been raised:  the needs and desires of adults, family, community always came first.


There have been many, disparate examples lately of this shift in attitude and behavior.  One I have been pondering is the life and death of Aaron Swartz, a young digital prodigy who founded Reddit, among many other accomplishments, and yet committed suicide a few months ago.  At the time, he was under federal indictment on several counts of fraud and computer fraud.  Many of you readers will never have heard of Swartz.  Among digital, media and political elites, he has been a cause celebre, his death a rallying cry for Internet freedom, a cry stoked by the conviction that, despite his long-time, severe and chronic clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, the Feds hounded him to death.


If you would like to know more, here is a link to Larissa MacFarquhar’s dispassionate profile in The New Yorker (March 11, 2013).  [Update:  Google the article. For some reason, the link does not work.]


This disturbs me about Aaron Swartz.  As a fellow at the Harvard University Center for Ethics, he obtained guest library privileges at nearby M.I.T.  While visiting M.I.T., he illegally downloaded via the M.I.T. web portal a large cache of academic articles not available for free to the general public.  For this act, among a few others, he was arrested.


This was a solitary act. Swartz did not consult others.  This was a clandestine act (computer hid in a janitorial closet).  This act was hallmark Swartz:  the kind of brilliant computer manipulation for which he was known.


What this was not was an act that benefits American society.  Although Swartz was (presumably) being paid by Harvard to contemplate ethics, and although he was merely a guest at M.I.T., he pre-empted ethical and communal choices to do his own thing.  He did not bring what he considered an injustice (having to pay for knowledge) to the attention of M.I.T.  He did not try to rally students around his conviction.  He took a shortcut that necessitated a detour around the public square–that public square with its rights of assembly and speech and voting mentioned earlier–that square at the center of who we are as a nation.


Despite his intellect, furthermore, Swartz never talked to academic journals, never inquired why they charge for content, never looked into the reasons behind the processes by which academics share original research.


These actions–inquiry and marshaling forces–require time and work and cooperation.  They can be tedious and frustrating.  Therefore, the lone act is a beguiling temptation, particularly for young men who, like Aaron Swartz, were born to privilege in upper middle class America and who always found doors opening easily and wide.  Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile of him is an outlier because, unlike the hagiography of Swartz on wikipedia (a nota bene if there ever was one to beware wikipedia) and elsewhere, hers is a skeptical and less than laudatory account (and revealingly not cited in wikipedia).


Although the Tsarnaev brothers’ background and means of expression, and those of Aaron Swartz, could hardly be more different, the similarity of impulse is striking and also troubling for our country.  The three young men were driven by convictions fueled by a sense of self entitlement, detached from empathy, detached from concern for consequence, detached from a sense of attachment to and respect for their surroundings, for our larger society and its embedded rules of order.


The Tsarnaev brothers, and Aaron Swartz to some extent, take me back in time to the Weather Underground.  Remember them? The white children of American privilege who in the 1960s and 1970s turned to the message delivery system of terrorism, setting off bombs as an expression of their anger with the U.S. government.  Several blew themselves up, as well as their Greenwich Village townhouse (next door to Dustin Hoffman’s), instead of the military officers’ dance for which they were making the bombs. 


Looking back now, the Weathermen appear bizarre and delusional.  How could such well-educated young men and women think they could overthrow the government of the United States of America?


How could Aaron Swartz, a fellow at a Harvard institute who had never acquired even an undergraduate college degree, imagine that he could change the process by which professional academics with Ph.D.s add their increments of learning and research to the larger body of knowledge?


How could Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev believe that they, too, were making a statement, one that would be heard above and beyond the noise and smoke of their bombs?




All these young people thought they had the truth. They were beacons of light in a sea of ignorance.  They were out to do their part to right the wrongs engendered by that ignorance.


Underpinning this cockamamie conviction is a feeling of superiority.  By our actions, by my action, I am going to teach you what’s what.


This would be a laughable delusion, except that in all three instances–the Weathermen, Aaron Swartz, the Tsarnaev brothers–consequences have been tragic.  This is the end to which our society’s enabling of that sense of entitlement in our youth can lead.

Now at this point you may be asking why I say that the Tsarnaev brothers felt superior.  After all, they were immigrants with strange names. Their parents struggled to make ends meet.  They lived in that “coming apart” working class Boston chronicled by Charles Murray.


It’s easy to see that young people educated at our top universities (Weathermen) and one of our computer geniuses (Swartz) might, even if unconsciously, feel superior. But Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?  They did not even know that there is a daily limit on an ATM withdrawal!


The Tsarnaev brothers Muslim heritage and faith gave them that sense of superiority. 


This is my final and most important point.  A lot of Islam went into the making of those pressure-cooker bombs.


And it is Islam that is most important in the Tsarnaev story because it is precisely that part we Americans as a society, together, cannot face.  Why? Because our national political dialogue, beginning with the leadership of President Obama, the remnant of our mainstream media that remains non-partisan, and our colleges & universities–all of which are largely secular–have an aversion to religion.


To those of us who worship God, this aversion is understandable.  It is a way of avoiding  thinking about the possibility that religious faith might be connected to something that is real, that is true, that is the ultimate prime mover.


In our pluralistic, multi-cultural America, moreover, it is all too easy to fall back on the bromides about all faiths being equal and all religions respected.  We have religious freedom. Indeed a good and great American right.  So go worship. If you want. Or not. End of story.


Here is the problem.  Islam is not one among many paths to God.  It is the higher way.  It is the superior faith, the purest revelation.  Even in tenth/eleventh-century Islamic Spain, rightly remembered as a golden age of learning and art, and one of tolerance, when Christians and Jews lived peaceably under the caliphs, Jews and Christians could not practice their faith as freely as Muslims.  Jews, Christians, Muslims–all dhimmi, “people of the Book [Bible]”–but Muslims first among the three.


Let me give you an example from my own experience.  In 2007 I attended a woman’s leadership forum in Amman, Jordan, hosted by Queen Rania.  At one of the discussions, the panelists were young Muslim western-dressed Jordanians, men and women both.  All had been born to wealth.  All had been educated at the top prep schools in England and America.  Now they were lawyers or studying to be lawyers.  One was currently a student at Harvard Law School.  The contingent of women from Toronto, Canada asked for the panelists’ expertise.  Toronto had recently defeated an initiative to pass a law based on a version of Sharia–but barely defeated.  How should they, as Toronto citizens and activists, handle this situation in the future?  Mistaking, utterly, the thrust of the question, the young Jordanian from Harvard calmly and matter-of-factly replied, “Don’t worry.  It will pass next time.  In time, Sharia will prevail.”


It was a moment of perfect perplexity.  A kind young man, he was trying to reassure and comfort the women from Toronto!


Now, of course, there are Christians who also believe ours is the superior faith.  But in western Christianity–and here is the crucial difference–there is an ongoing conversation, a back-and-forth full of questioning and argument and testimony, about “the way.” When Christians go astray–think Westboro Baptist Church–other Christians, the majority of Christians, speak out and even act against them.  And Christians at-large are not engaged in a global perversion of jihad.


Like many journalists who follow foreign affairs, when we learned that the explosive devices in Boston were pressure-cooker bombs, I strongly suspected a terrorist act inspired by Islamic teaching.  I knew that “suspect no. 2 in the white cap” was an Islamic jihadist when I saw, the minute the FBI released video, his neck scarf.  But I also knew that I would hear nothing about this on T.V. from the terrorist experts whom I have met and from whom I have learned and who therefore I knew knew what I knew.


It is an irony of our times that even as we live, most aware and thankful, in a country with constitutionally-protected free speech, we are silenced by political correctness.


But we need, as a nation, to be talking openly and honestly about Islam, even if that means asking dumb questions and shouting back-and-forth.  Ignorance and stupidity, after all, are the beginning of learning.


Our eschewing to bring debate about Islam into the public square is dangerous.  It is very dangerous.  I go so far to say that this willful avoidance is our greatest weakness today.  Our Achilles heel. 


Why?  Because this silence allows many of our Christian congregations to believe that Christianity and Islam are at war to the death.  This silence allows Muslim-American communities and mosques to keep silence, too. 


This conviction that we are engaged in final conflict, on the one hand, and community passivity, on the other, must be called out. Confronted. Checked.  Only from talking with one another, in the kind of conversation across cultural divides that America makes possible, challening one another, in the back-and-forth, will we grow in knowledge, learning from one another (even if we don’t want to admit it), figuring out, together, how secularism and religious faith can come together to confront this war of aggression in our own time.


Where are our political, military, academic and pastoral leaders here? I am particularly disappointed in the media, which has a powerful megaphone and therefore wields enormous influence.  Yes, most in media are secularists who wouldn’t know a Jesus parable from an Aesop’s fable. But there are Christians and Jews among them.


A profound ignorance of religious faith has characterized all the media coverage of Boston.  Of course, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a sweet boy.  Of course, Tamerlan had done some admirable things in his life.  They were good young men.  Only such as they seek a higher truth, desire a larger meaning to life–and so are drawn to God.


Their beliefs were perverted–still our ancient Foe/doth seek to work us woe–remember?  But such perversion is not going away–however much avoidance we practice–because it springs originally from something real and true and powerful, the wellspring of faith in God.  Another of course:  they were and are responsible for their actions, whatever the nature of our teleological universe. 


Mike Allen, Dave Weigel, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Meacham, even Cokie Roberts and Peggy Noonan–where are you here???  And don’t give me the excuses “I am too old,” “I am happy doing what I’m doing now,” because I am here to tell you that at age sixty-one I was called out of retirement to do something completely foreign to me, and I did it, and I contributed significantly to an ongoing conversation as a result.


Last week the Tsarnaev brothers armed themselves with the same cruel hate that Martin Luther knew five hundred years ago.  We will never be able to confront and oppose this particular manifestation of evil in our time, Islamic terrorism, until we, even the secular among us, take religion seriously and as a consequence bring Islam into the public square as a permissible subject for debate.


All of us know that random acts of violence inspired by Islamic jihad will continue.  What we must forestall–and seize the day now through knowledge and understanding–is that future young man or young woman, emboldened by a sense of entitlement and an assumption of superiority, who combines the brilliance and expertise of an Aaron Swartz (who never would have hurt a fly) with the violence of the Tsarnaev brothers.


April 23, 2013


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