Last week was pretty horrible here in southern New England, but things have calmed at last: one of the marathon bombers is dead, the other is in custody and charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.



I’m thankful that one of them is alive; maybe he can explain to us, in some way, what this was all about.



When horrible things happen, we try to make them conform to a narrative: good guys and bad guys, mysterious conspiracies. We want to understand why people do the horrible things they do.



Here’s some of what we know: the brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were ethnic Chechens. They came to the USA when they were young, and went to good schools. They are described as being mostly happy and well-adjusted by those who knew them.



So what happened to them?



It appears that Tamerlan became radicalized over the past few years. He was under scrutiny by both American and Russian intelligence, but neither discovered anything of interest.



All of the clues were subtle:



–         He visited his family in Russia last year, who noted that he seemed to be much more devout in his religious practice than before.

–         He posted a radical Islamist video on YouTube, and then removed it.

–         He told a friend that the Bible was a poor imitation of the Koran (showing an interesting misconception of the history of both books), and said that the United States used the Bible as an excuse to be a world aggressor.



We won’t know much more. He’s dead.



But his brother is alive.



His brother is a deeper mystery. He seems to have been universally liked, and is still described warmly by those who know him.



Here’s a narrative. Tell me what you think of this:



Once upon a time, in Chicago in 1924, there were two young men named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They both came from well-to-do families, and were both very intelligent. They decided, for whatever reason, that they were Supermen a la Nietzsche, and were far smarter than anyone else. They decided to demonstrate this by kidnapping, abusing, and killing a little boy named Bobby Franks.



They didn’t get away with it. A pair of Leopold’s glasses were found at the crime scene, and the whole scheme fell apart.



Loeb is portrayed as a persuasive seducer, who conned the more suggestible Leopold into coming along with him. (Leopold was a little older, but much shyer by all accounts.) And how about those glasses that Leopold dropped? Do you wonder if he dropped them on purpose?



It makes for a nice neat narrative.



But what do we really know?


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to Motivations

  1. starproms says:

    We don’t know as much as we should, that’s for sure. I think the younger brother was influenced by his older sibling who sounds like a right ar….le. We are all accountable for our actions however and I can’t believe that either brother didn’t know they were doing wrong.

    • It came out today that Tamerlan, the elder brother (who had become an observant Muslim) was selling drugs in order to buy weapons, etc. More and more twisted all the time.

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