, Salem, MA

May 2, 2013

Watson: The terrorist mind

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Looked at from a certain angle, the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon has a sticky surrealism to it, a quality of indigestible and gnawing unease that comes from two factors: one, our experience of the cognitive dissonance that the seemingly incompatible juxtapositions in the life stories of the two bombing suspects produce within us.

And two, our immediate — even as we are learning the facts of the story and processing the event — and instinctive awareness that violence and its perpetrators will always be among us.

As we read the tale, and gape at just about everything in it, we struggle to make sense of it, to understand it, for that is what humans do. We create stories — often called narratives — which we use to interpret and understand the parts of the world that we experience. Because a big part of that process involves projecting ourselves and our attitudes and our likely actions into the stories we hear, or the events we experience, we are most challenged — sometimes to the point of major disorientation — when we can’t identify with major parts of a story.

Look at the Tsarnaev brothers — Dzhokhar, 19, and Tamerlan, 26 — and there are terrible, disturbing juxtapositions. They are terrible and disturbing because they threaten our values, our notions of what to expect from people, and our understandings of what we can take to be true.

Tamerlan was a highly accomplished amateur boxer. In 2010, he was the New England Golden Gloves heavyweight champion. In 2009, he had participated in the national Golden Gloves tournament in Salt Lake City. Those are high-profile, highly respected, highly sought-after achievements. It takes courage, discipline, character, respect and intelligence to attain the skills and fitness and mental strength necessary to win repeatedly at those championship levels. Tamerlan had trained seriously for more than 10 years.

In addition to possessing exceptional boxing talent, he had learned classical piano and was married and had a 3-year-old daughter. He lived in Cambridge, one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant cities in the world. He had been in the U.S. legally since 2003.

Generally speaking, our expectations are that people in positive circumstances will behave in positive ways. And that people leading conventional lives, participating within the norms of society, interacting on a daily basis with other decent, normal people, will continue to do so reliably and constructively. That is the deal; that is a big part of everybody’s insurance — the simultaneous benefit and cost of living in a society — that thing we call the social contract.

We know that people sometimes break the social contract. We are familiar with crime, addiction, theft, bribery and all sorts of perfidy. But most of the time, we can dissect it, analyze it, understand it. We do this not to excuse antisocial behavior, but to gain the wisdom to be able to prevent it, or repair it. Correspondingly, we are not good at making sense of what we see as irrational behavior or behavior without discernible cause.

So we look at Tamerlan’s life and actions, and we ask why. Why does a man with so much invested in his American life, and with a wife and a toddler, plant a bomb that kills an 8-year-old boy who made a school poster that said, “No more hurting people”?

It is of no help to answer that Tamerlan became radicalized. If he became convinced that life should be organized according to the strictures of fundamentalist Islam, then injuring dozens of runners and their fans was irrelevant to that belief. His fight properly was with the longtime dictators and oppressors of Russia, central Asia and the Mideast, not the pluralism of the United States, where he was free to advocate in the open marketplace of ideas for any type of society he desired.

Tamerlan reminds me of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who, over the course of 17 years, mailed 16 package bombs to targeted victims. Kaczynski had a beef — quite well-reasoned actually — with society, but when he couldn’t change it, his alienation and other understandable circumstances drove him to try to assassinate those he held responsible.

Presumably, Tamerlan shared with Kaczynski that deep alienation and that deadly certitude that all things are black or white, true or false. Such thinking — combined with extreme loyalty to an idea — can fuel violence.

But we really haven’t answered the question that haunts us, that scares us and which we know — as the world increasingly faces some very likely extreme challenges — is the core question. What kind of person, what kind of mind, possesses an excessive vulnerability to the power of ideas?

There are three outstanding books that illuminate this topic: “Murder in Amsterdam” by Ian Buruma, “A Mind for Murder” by Alston Chase and “Terror in the Name of God” by Jessica Stern.

The books focus on the simultaneous resilience and fragility of the human mind, the difficulty of being at war mentally with one’s society, the difficulty of being an immigrant or an outsider, and the near-impossibility of reaching somebody once he has migrated to the dark side.

What we’ve learned is that the human mind — whether intellectual or untutored — is capable of any turn, and that very rational thoughts can lead to irrational behavior. Terrorists may not be insane, but they have jettisoned pieces of the objective reality that really exists. Identifying who will do this, before they do it, will always be an imperfect science.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at