If we had as many certain facts as we have strong emotions about the Boston Marathon bombings, we would all be better off. Sadly, this is not the case, but as with every such act of terror we are challenged yet again to disentangle the emotions of our response from the motives of the bombers.The natural human desire to know why someone would carry out such a cruel criminal act has led to much speculation during the past week about the Tsarnaev brothers. Most of it has focused on the older or both brothers possibly being radicalized during visits to their region of origin near their native Chechnya, Dagestan and neighboring Caucasus lands in southern Russia, or through the Internet by Al-Qaeda-like terror groups.
As far as I can tell – from considerable reading of quality scholarly works on this topic, living among deeply politicized and often aggrieved populations in the Middle East for the past 45 years, and experiencing close-up the heightened, heroism-based emotionalism of American crowds at sports events and after terror attacks – three basic reasons cause an otherwise unexceptional young man to become a terrorist who kills innocent civilians at random, whether in Oklahoma City, London, Karachi, Baghdad or Boston. These are nationalism, religious radicalism, or personality disorders that provoke violence.
Very prevalent factors that also push an individual along the dark path to terrorism are social isolation and identity problems among young men. These young men, as the French scholar Olivier Roy notes, emigrate to foreign countries, lose their social anchorage, become “deterritorialized,” and end up being easy recruits for religious radicals and nationalist militants who offer such lost souls a comforting group to which to belong, and new meaning in life.
We have seen this phenomenon replayed over and over again in many countries. Young men crazed by foreign assaults against their homeland or pushed by their troubled psyches lash out against imaginary enemies in what they see as defensive and protective acts, to protect their homeland, and maybe also to heal inner traumas.
We simply do not know yet what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers – which is why for the past week I have ignored everything I have read or heard in the global media on how the brothers allegedly became radicalized and decided to commit this crime. The American mainstream media’s emphasis on the Islamic dimension of this is especially disturbing and disappointing – but not unexpected. American society has been terrorized and traumatized by a handful of Muslims criminals since 2011, and in return has responded with a terrible brand of intellectual terrorism that itself comprises a common crime: The religious dimension of a suspect’s identity is isolated and amplified, and religion and criminality are dealt with as the two connected poles of a single phenomenon.
Americans have also responded to their own victimhood with heightened, exaggerated nationalism – flags everywhere, making members of the armed forces iconic and epic national heroes, and, most fascinating for political psychologists, spontaneous chants of U-S-A-, U-S-A breaking out everywhere as a reflexive assertion of an identity that cannot be broken by the terrorist’s criminal deed. Capitalism and personal freedom now converge in a particularly spontaneous, vigorous and genuine form of patriotism – the flag on every football helmet, and on some airline and diner coffee cups – providing an almost religious source of common identity and protection for millions of Americans. They too, when assaulted by a stranger, instinctively rally to protect their homeland, and in so doing they affirm their deep humanity by combining their own forms of religion, nationalism and social psychology.
We should be wary of simplistic causal explanations or solutions for such terrorism as are offered by politicians for whom intellectual integrity is a no-fly zone. Remember the madrasas that were a root cause of terrorism in 2001 and 2002? Remember poverty? Remember the envy of American freedom? The Tsarnaevs certainly did not.
The crimes of the attacker and the reactions of the victim come from very different worlds, but both suggest that the most fruitful route of analysis toward understanding why this and other such attacks happen is to identify that combination of nationalism, religiosity and social psychology that converges in the person of a young man in a distant land with a bomb in his knapsack, whom parents and friends describe as an angel, and whom Americans and people around the glove rightly describe as a beast.
The bottom line for me is to wait for the facts to emerge, and then painstakingly piece together the elements we need to understand about the issues the attacks raise – young global migrants, Internet terror mobilizations, religious radical movements, ethnicity and nationalism, superpower foreign policies, and other issues.
We must try to do this free of the terrible distortions of exaggerated nationalism, warped religiosity, chronic fear and compounded ignorance that often blind us to the realities of our deeply political, distorted and violent worlds, in Oklahoma City and Boston as in Iraq and Chechnya.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.