, Salem, MA


May 2, 2013

Watson: The terrorist mind


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.

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