The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy 
by Masha Gessen.
Riverhead, 273 pp., £18.45, April 2015, 978 1 59463 264 8
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On 24 June​ , Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of two Chechen-American brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013, was sentenced to death in a Boston federal court. (His older brother, Tamerlan, died following a street battle with police in Watertown, Massachusetts several nights after the bombing.) The brothers had placed, and detonated by remote control, two explosive devices fashioned from pressure cookers stuffed with shrapnel; three people were killed in the blasts, and more than 260 others suffered serious, permanent injuries, including 16 who lost limbs.

Footage from multiple surveillance cameras overlooking the Boston Marathon dispelled any reasonable doubt that the Tsarnaev brothers had planted the bombs and set them off. At Tsarnaev’s trial, notwithstanding his ‘not guilty’ plea on thirty separate capital charges, his chief defence attorney told the court: ‘It was him.’ This effectively confined the defence case to the assertion that Dzhokhar had acted under the powerful influence of Tamerlan, and would not have carried out the bombing on his own, counting on character witnesses in the trial’s penalty phase to dramatise this idea to the jury. One witness testified that Dzhokhar had been ‘like a puppy following his brother’, a characterisation eerily illustrated by surveillance videos of Dzhokhar trailing Tamerlan by several metres on the pavement lining the marathon route.

The defence team’s sole objective was a life sentence for their client, an unlikely outcome from the outset, given that the court denied motions to change the trial venue from Boston itself to a town where jurors’ friends or families were less likely to have been affected by the bombing. In a non-death penalty state like Massachusetts a federal case in which execution is an option can still be heard so long as the jury is ‘death-qualified’ – i.e. all the jurors have declared themselves willing to deliver a death verdict. Since 80 per cent of Massachusetts residents specifically opposed execution in the Tsarnaev case, the jury was necessarily drawn from an unusually narrow pool, and was therefore disproportionately likely to impose capital punishment. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has since been moved to federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, since – although a non-death penalty state can deliver a death verdict – the executions themselves must be carried out in a state that has death penalty statutes. This risible scruple has a practical aspect: such states also have the requisite killing equipment on hand, and often seem to relish the chance to use it. (In recent Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma executions, a European export embargo on lethal injection drugs has prompted mix’n’match improvisations with untested pharmaceuticals, with results Josef Mengele would consider plagiarism.) Timothy McVeigh, whose trial venue was shifted from Oklahoma City to Denver, Colorado, got transferred post-trial to the same death row in Terre Haute.

Whether Tsarnaev will, as McVeigh did, forego the often decades-long appeals process to hasten his end is an open question. While hiding from police inside a boat in a backyard in Watertown, Dzhokhar managed to write a rather long note on the boat’s hull that began: ‘I’m jealous of my brother who ha [bullet hole] ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus (inshallah) before me.’ (‘Jannatul Firdous’ is a name for ‘the highest paradise’ in Arabic, as well as a line of speciality fragrances available online from Givaudan Roure, ‘the oldest perfumery house in the Arabian Gulf’.) For all we know, Dzhokhar’s jealousy may already have cooled. If so, ample grounds for appeal exist. There is the venue issue. Then too, US District Judge George O’Toole Jr refused to give the standard jury instruction, which says that a single holdout juror can avert a death sentence permanently – that is, without the penalty phase of the trial being repeated until a unanimous verdict is reached. The grotesqueness of executing a 22-year-old is not considered grounds for appeal: the death-qualifying age, so to speak, is 18.

Unlike several recent books on the marathon bombing, Masha Gessen’s The Brothers is uninflected by consoling homilies, Manichean narrative framing or civic propaganda. Gessen’s is a superlative work of reporting that locates the Boston atrocity and the Tsarnaevs in the queasy context of the modern world, where atrocities happen every day, in places presumed to be ‘safe’ as well as those beset by civil war. The Brothers provides essential Soviet and post-Soviet geopolitical background, charting the Tsarnaev family’s peregrinations from Kyrgyzstan (to where Stalin brutally transplanted the entire Chechen population in 1944) to Novosibirsk in south central Russia, where the brothers’ parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, met (he was finishing his Soviet military service, she seeking her eldest brother’s permission to move to Moscow). They later moved to Kalmykia, the Soviet republic where Tamerlan was born; back to Kyrgyzstan, where two daughters, Bella and Ailina, were added to the family; then to Chiry-Yurt in Chechnya, Dzhokhar’s birthplace.

From Chechnya they returned again to Kyrgyzstan to escape the 1994 Russian bombing of Grozny. In 2000, they moved to Makhachkala in Dagestan, where the second Chechen war was spilling over the border. Wahhabi fundamentalism had spread through the Caucasus, its suspected adherents a target for Russian troops and local police. As Gessen writes:

Makhachkala and much of the rest of Dagestan became a battleground … This was the Dagestan to which Anzor and Zubeidat brought their four children, including Tamerlan, who at 14 was on the verge of becoming that most endangered and most dangerous of human beings: a young Dagestani man. [They] had to move again, to save their children – again.

They would go to America after all.

The Tsarnaevs weren’t always fleeing incipient war zones. Sometimes they just rolled elsewhere in search of a better deal. More often than not, his mother, Zubeidat, the more willful and ambitious of the parents, decided where they would go. Bad timing, bad luck and defective reality-testing all feature prominently in the story Gessen tells; so do seemingly minuscule ethnic and religious distinctions that caused the Tsarnaevs to feel out of place wherever they lived. They were Chechens outside Chechnya, Muslims in only the nominal sense that their ethnic codes reflected a vaguely Islamic influence.

Things didn’t work out in America. The Tsarnaevs arrived soon after 9/11, when Muslims began to replace communists as objects of fear for the media demonisation industry. Chechens, who had once been welcomed as refugees from Russian aggression, became suspect after Russia and the US began collaborating in the ‘war on terror’. (The US ignored Russian atrocities in Chechnya in exchange for air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.) While it’s unclear whether the Tsarnaevs experienced egregious anti-Muslim, anti-Chechen or other discrimination in the US (they didn’t wear Islamic dress, and one daughter successfully copped a Latina identity for a while), their ethnicity and religion complicated the legal status of some family members, and they must have seen themselves as part of a despised, if nebulous, minority.

The travails of the Tsarnaev clan are almost too numerous and tangled to itemise. The new life in America started with the thorny process of asylum-seeking, scrambling for housing and off-the-books work (asylum applicants are prohibited from employment or collecting benefits for a year), finding schools for the children, and trying to decipher local conditions. The Tsarnaevs landed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a mixed blessing: a liberal enclave of top-notch universities and rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods, its contiguous working-class areas a Hogarthian reminder of the destiny awaiting failure. A well-educated, Russian-speaking, guardian angel landlady, Joanna Herlihy, entered their lives at a propitious moment. Herlihy, who ‘for most of her adult life … had been trying to save the world’, can be viewed retrospectively as a mixed blessing too. Untiringly helpful in practical matters, she sheltered her new tenants behind a baffle of contentious idealism, ratifying their feelings of persecution when wishes didn’t come true. The stellar expectations of the Tsarnaevs eroded in increments. Within a few years, they collected grievances like baseball cards.

Gessen writes that kids in newly arrived families ‘stop being kids, because the adults have lost their bearings … they go through a period of intense suffering and dislocation made all the more painful for being forced and unexpected. But at the other end of the pain, they locate their roles and settle into them, claiming their places in the new world.’ Most of the Tsarnaev children, however, did less and less well as time went on. The family pattern had been set by their parents: when troubles piled up after every fresh start, they just moved somewhere else. Gessen’s narrative makes the Tsarnaevs palpable enough, but unworldliness mists the atmosphere around them; Anzor and Zubeidat sound too narcissistic, too skilled in extracting sympathy and favours from new acquaintances, to compromise much with American reality. No one in the family stuck to any ambitious plan long enough to realise it. Anzor, whose bogus claim to have been a prosecutor’s assistant in Kyrgyzstan got him nowhere, took up his previous trade as a freelance car mechanic; Zubeidat, after thwarted efforts to translate documents for human rights groups, became a home care worker, later a beautician. With the exception of Dzhohkar, the undoubtedly bright children began to stumble in their new surroundings.

Zubeidat, who believed Tamerlan ‘perfect’ and ‘destined for greatness’, no doubt instilled a great deal of self-belief in him. But, as Gessen writes, ‘he had lived in seven cities and attended an even greater number of schools,’ entering tenth grade in Cambridge at 17. He struggled for good grades and to learn English, but as the oldest child was also the most wrongfooted by repeated dislocation. Hopes for him shifted to a career in boxing or music. Catnip to women, he dressed like a gigolo and kept himself gym-solid shapely. He played keyboards, and thought of becoming a music star, but never really pursued it. After dropping out of community college, he delivered pizzas and sold weed. He married, and fathered a child. He won some impressive boxing matches and an amateur Golden Gloves trophy, but was afterwards barred from title contests because he wasn’t a US citizen; his application was held up after he was arrested for smacking his wife. At the time of the bombings, he was living on benefits and dealing drugs.

The daughters, Bella and Ailina, despite some early promise, scuttled their educations; they married Chechen men (a cultural ukase), had children, divorced, got busted for passing on counterfeit banknotes and selling weed. Nothing reachy was expected of them in the first place and they soon seemed fated for a life of welfare and sporadic work in service industries. Their designated roles were to marry within the clan, have babies to continue the bloodline, and embrace domestic servitude, as per the will of Allah. They were independent enough to get out of bad marriages and free enough to keep their own children (in the old country children were a husband’s property), but otherwise their American road turned into a dead end.

Dzhokhar, having spent his whole childhood in Cambridge, was the most assimilated of the family, and the last to stumble. A sweet, smart boy loved by all, he graduated with honours from high school (Cambridge Rindge and Latin, alma mater of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), despite spending much of it stoned out of his mind. He also was dealing, like Tamerlan. While he couldn’t have afforded a prestige university, Dzhokhar’s choice of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth – in Gessen’s generous description, ‘the least academically challenging’ of the schools he was admitted to – reflects a dazed, amiable passivity. The Tsarnaevs were a ‘tight-knit family’ in the most ruinous sense that family alone provided each member’s sense of identity and direction. If one ran awry, eventually they all would.

All the descriptions of Dzhokhar, Gessen writes,

that have emerged from conversations with people who knew him, including people who cared for him deeply, are spectacular in their flatness. Those who watched him from a distance describe him as a social superstar. To those who thought they got closer, he was charming. Indeed, charm appears to have been his sole distinguishing personality trait. Teachers thought he was bright but uninterested in thinking for himself.

In his sophomore year at Dartmouth he began failing subjects, stepped up his marijuana sales and narrowed his social circle to a small band of other immigrant Dartmouth students – Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov from Kazakhstan, and Robel Phillipos, an Ethiopian with US citizenship – and their occasional girlfriends. He tweeted, he facebooked. He spent much of his time away from his dorm room, at a New Bedford apartment the Kazakhs rented:

The group spent three or four evenings a week on that sofa, getting stoned, watching movies and eating. The boys played FIFA, a soccer video game; the girls talked about which of the boys might be the hottest lovers, though it does not appear that anyone but Dias was getting much action.

In 2009, Tamerlan and his mother ‘began studying the Koran’. Tamerlan also began studying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, ever popular in Russia and the bible of anti-Semites everywhere. One of Zubeidat’s home care clients, a loose screw called Donald Larking, passed along conspiracist libertarian newspapers and magazines. The internet provided even more enticing forms of inflammatory propaganda – lectures by the al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki and the like – and the opportunity to share festering resentments with thinkalikes all over the planet. Relatedly or not, Dzhokhar, a whizz at languages, opened an account on, ‘a Facebook clone site on which most Russians his age maintained their social media lives’. By this time, evidently, everyone realised that America had been a wrong move.

Anzor, despite a few drunken fights and scrapes with neighbours, was an essentially passive, Soviet-made working stiff, svelte and athletic in his youth, gaunt and ailing by middle age, indifferent to Islamist manias and 9/11 conspiracy lore, resigned to getting by fixing cars. His health deteriorated, and his marriage to Zubeidat, who had taken to wearing a burqa, fell apart. They divorced in 2011; in 2012, Anzor left the country for Dagestan. Meanwhile, after ten years, Herlihy got fed up with her rebarbative tenants and their increasingly cracked views. She asked them to leave, but gave them several months to do so.

Here, more or less, is where the train goes into the tunnel. More finely sifted details of all the above can be found in Gessen’s extraordinary book. It’s worth noting here that Zubeidat was arrested for shoplifting from the Cambridge branch of the department store Lord & Taylor in 2012; she then took off for Dagestan, two weeks after Tamerlan returned from a seven-month visit. With both parents gone, Tamerlan was, by custom, now the head of the family in America, though Bella and Ailina, haphazardly in and out of Cambridge with their children, were living erratic lives of their own. Dzhokhar shambled back and forth in a cloud of smoke between Cambridge and New Bedford. ‘There was an understanding in the family now: Dagestan was the place to live.’ Dzhokhar spoke of moving there next summer. Tamerlan was only waiting until he could get a US passport – a valuable commodity in a pinch.

At the time​ of the bombings, Tamerlan was 26, Dzhokhar 19. They had no known accomplices, though the bombs were far from simple to make, and no traces of their assembly were discovered anywhere. It’s also unclear when the idea of bombing the marathon first occurred to either brother. In the months before the bombing, the brothers were rarely in the same place at the same time. It’s easy to suppose they created a gang of two through phone calls and text messages, and fortified their sense of mission with YouTube jihadist videos and al-Qaida’s online magazine, Inspire, which ran a DIY article entitled ‘Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom’. Had they held off for a year, Isis might have attracted the brothers to Syria, but the Isis brand hadn’t yet overtaken al-Qaida’s outside the Middle East and the Caucasus. It was widely reported that Tamerlan had been ‘radicalised’ during his visit to Dagestan in 2012. Gessen thinks this an exaggeration, having tracked his activities there very closely. He hung out with young Salafi Muslims belonging to the Union of the Just, ‘allied with Hizb ut-Tahrir, one of the largest Islamic organisations in the world. Hizb ut-Tahrir proclaims the goal of creating a caliphate that would unite the Muslim lands of the world … by peaceful means, through political and philosophical struggle only.’ Gessen notes that some analysts consider Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘a gateway organisation that facilitates young Muslims’ passage from peaceful civilians to jihadis’, but all the same, Tamerlan did nothing much in Dagestan besides talk the Islamist talk and show off his fancy clothes.

Retrospective suspicion that Tamerlan had murdered three drug dealers in Waltham, Massachusetts in 2011, by slitting their throats, insinuates the possibility that Tamerlan had killed people before visiting Dagestan, and was already disinhibited about inflicting lethal violence. However, we don’t know, and we probably never will; the only purported witness/accomplice to the Waltham murders, a gym-mate called Ibragim Todashev, was shot seven times and killed by an FBI agent in Orlando, Florida, a month after the bombing. According to the FBI, Todashev ‘became aggressive’ while writing out a confession implicating Tamerlan, the uncompleted text of which was inconsistent with the Waltham crime scene.

This sort of obscurity is everywhere in the Tsarnaev saga. Why was a bevy of federal agents buzzing around the MIT area in Cambridge several hours before the Tsarnaevs shot an MIT security cop? Had the FBI, at the instigation of the Russian FSB, not just interviewed Tamerlan as a suspected extremist several times in 2011, but tried to recruit him as an informant? An informant who ‘went rogue’? If this were the case, could the FBI have hoped to take him out before he could spill, if the police caught him alive?

Gessen has taken flak from the New York Times for merely asking such questions, in a ponderous review by Janet Napolitano, director of the Department of Homeland Security at the time of the marathon bombing. A figure much loved by America’s spy networks, Napolitano dismissed the book’s descriptions of FBI malfeasance, abuses of the deportation laws and draconian prosecutions on accessory charges as ‘conspiracy theory’. This seems quite unfair to Gessen, who tries for several pages to imagine a plausible scenario in which the FBI agent who shot Todashev seven times could have been acting in ‘self-defence’. That she is unable really to do so is hardly her fault. The FBI itself issued several different versions of what happened before settling on something remotely credible.

Well before the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects, tabloid TV and print media launched a free-ranging witch hunt targeting Muslims, people who looked like Muslims, and unaccountable others, picked out of footage of the marathon crowd, or out of nowhere; at one strange moment, even the actress Zooey Deschanel was identified as a bombing suspect on a news broadcast, perhaps because of the slightly unusual spelling of her name. After the police shoot-out (in which Tamerlan’s nearly dead body was recovered, Dzhokhar having run over it in an SUV), authorities asked residents of the Boston area to ‘shelter in place’, putting an entire American city under lockdown.

After Dzhokhar’s arrest, various provisions of the US Patriot Act permitted authorities to question the gravely wounded suspect, a US citizen, for hours before he was read his Miranda rights; in the days and months that followed, almost anyone in the United States with the faintest connection to the Tsarnaevs was either harassed, deported or prosecuted for minor, even unconscious infractions that, if shoved under the umbrella of ‘terrorism’, can be magnified by federal prosecutors into major felonies. Dias Kadyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov and Robel Phillipos, who removed some of Dzhokhar’s belongings from his dorm room in a stoned panic, are currently doing long stretches in federal prison; another friend who deleted the search history on his own computer has been in custody for two years awaiting trial. The charges brought against these people presumed deliberate obstruction of the bombing investigation, or of making ‘materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements’ to police and the FBI, when in any reasonable view, nothing they did, or told or didn’t tell authorities, had any effect on the investigation whatsoever. They had no knowledge of the bombing before it happened, and were in an even greater state of confusion afterwards than anyone else in Boston, simply because they happened to know the Tsarnaevs.

What passed between the brothers in the ten months after Zubeidat’s departure to Dagestan is terra incognita. The chances are no specific event or Svengali-like radicalisation inspired the Tsarnaev brothers to blow up the Boston Marathon. As a policeman in Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack puts it: ‘I think even the most seasoned terrorists really have no idea what has happened to them. And it can happen to anyone. Something clicks somewhere in their subconscious, and they’re off … Either it falls on your head like a roof tile or it attaches itself to your insides like a tapeworm. Afterwards, you no longer see the world in the same way.’ The media fantasy that Tamerlan was schizophrenic and ‘heard voices’ is highly improbable. The consensus among terrorism experts is that terrorists are normal people. ‘He was a perfectly nice guy.’ ‘The last person I’d imagine doing something like this.’ After the fact, neighbours, friends and co-workers invariably say the same things about terrorists as they say about serial killers. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a single provable instance of the legendary FBI profiling unit in Quantico, Virginia actually instigating the capture of a serial killer: it tends to be when someone is stopped for driving with a broken tail light that the dead body in the trunk is discovered. It’s only afterwards that we’re told they ‘fit the FBI profile’.

Why did they do it?​ How could they? In the world we live in now, the better questions are: why not? Why wouldn’t they? To quote Khadra’s novel again, on suicide bombers: ‘The only way to get back what you’ve lost or to fix what you’ve screwed up – in other words, the only way to make something of your life – is to end it with a flourish: turn yourself into a giant firecracker in the middle of a school bus or launch yourself like a torpedo against an enemy tank.’ Everything the US has done to prevent terrorism has been the best advertising terrorism could possibly have. The ‘war on terror’ has degenerated since its ugly inception in Afghanistan and Iraq into a two-pronged war against the US domestic population’s civil rights and the infrastructures of Muslim nations; every cynical episode of this endless war has inched America closer to a police state, and turned people minding their own business in other countries into jihadists and suicide bombers. If the United States were at all interested in preventing terrorism, it would first have to acknowledge that the country belongs to the citizens its economic policies have impoverished, and get rid of emergency laws that violate their rights on the pretext of ensuring their safety. This would involve dismantling the surveillance state apparatus that inflates its criminally gigantic budgets with phony terrorism warnings and a veritable industry of theatrical FBI sting operations. And then the country would have to address the systemic social problems that have been allowed to metastasise ever since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. As everyday existence becomes more punitive for all but the monied few, more and more frustrated, volatile individuals will seek each other out online, aggravate whatever lethal fairy tale suits their pathology, and, ultimately, transfer their rage from the screen world to the real one.

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