The Truth about Terror: Masha Gessen on The Brothers


Behind such great fear, surely there must be an equally great threat,” writes Masha Gessen in her new book, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, a compelling study of Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Yet, as she delves into their strange and fragmented story – a displaced childhood, the unfruitful years leading up to the 2013 Marathon, and the harrowing aftermath of their heinous actions – an unsettling notion comes to light: the brothers were not attached to any known terrorist network. There did not appear to be any accomplices. What was initially perceived as just the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing terrorist attack became revealed as a single, convulsive act of brutal violence carried out by two previously unremarkable people.  How could they have arrived at such an improbable and horrifying destination?

The bombings were a tragedy comprising many parts and many people. Gessen has focused her narrative on not only the Tsarnaevs but on those who knew the family: recent Chechen immigrants and other members of the Muslim community who were ruthlessly interrogated by the FBI – and sometimes deported – in the aftermath of the attacks. She calls these people the “invisible victims” – a choice of phrase that is not accidental. With a cool, clear voice, she examines how America’s tremendous dread of terrorism has marred our once-lauded justice system and distorted the legal rights of immigrants in this country. The author and I spoke over coffee in Harlem, about a week before the jury convicted Dzhokhar on all 30 counts (the sentencing phase of the trial begins next week). The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Sarah Ungerleider

Barnes & Noble Review: This book is sure to have resonance for a lot of people, since there are so many who are connected to the events of the 2013 Marathon in one way or another. The past two years have definitely been a bit of a whirlwind for my family and friends in Massachusetts, and I think it’s indispensible to have this in-depth portrait of the perpetrators as we watch the trial of Dzhokhar unfold.

When did you decide you wanted to write about the brothers?

Masha Gessen: Well, my oldest friend in the world called me up. We were friends when we were pre-teens in Moscow, then our families both immigrated to Boston.

She said, “You have to drop everything and write a book about the Tsarnaev brothers.” It was just a week after Marathon Monday. And I was like, “Right, of course I do.” I’d covered terrorism both as a reporter and as an editor. I’d studied it when I was a Neiman Fellow at Harvard. Some of the people who are quoted in the book are actually people that I studied with. And perhaps the most relevant aspect was that I was a Russian-speaking teenager in Boston. Even at that early stage, the story felt important to write about.

BNR: What was the starting point in your research?

MG: I was still living in Russia at the time, so it seemed logical to start in the parts of the world that are significantly easier to access from Moscow than they are from the States. I first went to Dagestan and Chechnya in May of 2013. There’s a kind of reporting curve, especially with big news events; there’s first a deluge of information, and then you settle in for the long haul. I actually took a break from reporting for The Brothers after that initial deluge, and took up writing about Pussy Riot, which became my book Words Will Break Cement. Then I went back to Boston to work on The Brothers, then to Kyrgyzstan and back to Dagestan again.

It was a very hard book to write, because the two worst things that can happen to people whom you’re trying to use as sources did happen. One was that there was an incredible amount of attention on people who hadn’t been in the public eye before: neighbors of the Tsarnaev family on Norfolk Street, classmates of Tamerlan, friends of Dzhokhar, family members. There’s something that happens to people who are not used to speaking to the media in the midst of a trauma. They invariably, with few exceptions, feel like they’ve said more than they wanted to say. They immediately lose their taste for talking to reporters, and it takes months to coax them back into speaking with you.

The second thing that happened is that these people were harassed by the FBI. Many were terrified, and had been told explicitly not to talk to reporters, or else risk harm to themselves or their families. So it was basically a reporter’s nightmare in terms of people’s willingness to talk.

What was odd about this story was that it’s usually much easier to get Americans to talk to the media than people in other countries. This is a very media-centric culture, and everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. But this experience was vastly different.

BNR: In the first few chapters of the book you walk us through the history of Chechnya right after World War Two. Its people were exiled by Stalin for being supposed traitors, and forced into a mass deportation to Kyrgyzstan and other areas of Central Asia, where thousands died of starvation and disease. I was completely unaware of this, and would guess that’s true of most Americans.

MG: That was my assumption.

BNR: How do you think that terrible history – not discounting the bloody Chechen wars of the 1990s – affected the Tsarnaev family?

MG: Well, I try to stay away from psychologizing that narrative. But at a certain point, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar started to focus increasingly on their identity as Chechens, and I thought it was really important to explain what a Chechen identity is. Most readers in this country have a pretty good idea of what a Jewish identity means, and that identity rides a lot on the narrative of overcoming hatred in one’s community. Every ethnic identity has its own story. The story of Chechnya happens to be extremely traumatic and recent, and somehow completely unintelligible to those outside of it. There was a young woman who had been devouring all the information related to the bombings that she could. A year after the fact I asked her, “Did you know where he (Dzhokhar) was from?” and she said, “Yes, he was from the Czech Republic.”

BNR: That’s incredible. And not just in regards to the disjointed history of Chechnya, but to the Tsarnaev family, who were constantly moving back and forth from Dagestan to Kyrgyzstan to Chechnya – sometimes more than once in a year.

MG: Exactly.

BNR: What do you think that constant upheaval did to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar?

MG: I haven’t experienced dislocation on nearly the same scale that they have, but I can tell you, it’s not fun. It’s especially not fun for kids. It’s odd that in the process of writing this book, I also picked up my own children and moved them halfway across the world. They’d all grown up in Moscow and I brought them to New York, so I got to observe my own childhood experience again. I remember how traumatic it was for me as a teenager to be moved from Moscow to Boston. My kids had visited the United States. Their grandfather lives in Massachusetts. They speak English. And still, the experience of being torn away from everything they knew was tough. You can’t prepare yourself for the loss of your landscape.

I took my daughter, who was 12 at the time, to go cycling in Central Park. I was waxing romantic, saying, “This is Central Park, the greatest park in the greatest city in the world, and this is where we get to go biking—isn’t that amazing?” She said, “Yeah. That building right there kind of reminds me of Moscow.”

Then she said, “You know what the problem is? Everything in my life either reminds me about the past or tells me something about the future—but I have no present.” I was like, “Goddamn articulate 12-year-olds.” But it’s a very, very good description of what happens when you lose the sense of everyday life.

So that kept happening to the Tsarnaevs. They were unmoored for most of their lives, especially Tamerlan as the eldest sibling.

BNR: You describe Dzhokhar as a very charming young man, but never really showing others a strong sense of his identity. One of his teachers even said that he didn’t really identify with being Chechen.

MG: I think it’s a little more complicated than that. It was just very hard to explain to people. Tamerlan got so tired of it that he would eventually say that he was from Russia and that his name was Timberland, like the shoe. I thought that was so great, because it really shows just how accessible this person was. The American imagination immediately drew a scary picture of this monster from some exotic Chechen place, whatever that means. But this was actually a guy who was willing to call himself a shoe to make himself more understandable to the people around him. And it still didn’t work.

So getting back to Dzhokhar, it’s not that he didn’t have a strong Chechen identity. It’s that the very idea of identity, in the way that it’s interpreted in this country is really American. So what he was being asked to do was not to explain who he was, but to explain who he was in terms that those who surrounded him would understand. And that basically means becoming something else. He was born in Chechnya, but he had never really lived there. There were all these complexities that he couldn’t convey to his interlocutors about this war-torn place.

It’s a reductionist sort of proposition, and for a kid that’s really painful. It meant that his identity was completely lost in translation.

BNR: When the Tsarnaevs arrived in Boston, they ended up living in Cambridge and were there for over 10 years, but it’s like they were never really able to assimilate. The parents Anzor and Zubeidat weren’t able to find stable jobs, and Tamerlan started selling drugs. Do you think if they had been able to find stability, the brothers wouldn’t have gone down this road?

MG: Had it been a successful immigration, would things have been different? Well, we have no way of knowing. But there was nothing atypical about what happened to the Tsarnaevs. It’s true that the amount of misfortune that befell these people is mindboggling. But you take any one of these things separately and you see the normalcy of their lives. Chechen men beat their wives. So there’s nothing surprising about the marriages of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s two sisters falling apart. Two out of three community college students drop out, so there’s nothing surprising about Tamerlan leaving school. Most boxers, even very talented boxers like Tamerlan, don’t make it onto the Olympic team, et cetera.

None of these things, or even all of them in combination, actually explain the brothers’ decision to build a bomb. Additionally, most people with radical or violent beliefs do not build bombs and blow people up. So for all the back story I can offer, I can’t bridge the logical gap. It is unbridgeable.

BNR: I want to talk a little about Tamerlan when he went back to Dagestan. The media and the FBI said that he was radicalized there, but in the book we learn that there may be a more subtle meaning to “radicalization” in his case.

MG: First of all, I am firmly convinced that the whole radicalization narrative was faulty. I think that going to Dagestan was a life-changing event for Tamerlan for a couple of reasons, one of which was that he was going back to a place that was, in his imagination, glorious. He had grown up there as a teenager. I had that same experience of going back as a young person to a place I had left as a teenager. That’s Moscow. I remember the physical shock of it: being among the smells, the scale of the city, and the color of the sky…it was flabbergasting. You never expect it to affect you that way. So I think that’s really important, and that probably happened to him.

The other thing that happened that’s specific to Tamerlan and to Dagestan is that he discovered a whole population of young men just like him, who spend their lives sitting around in cafes talking about building an Islamic Caliphate. Speaking with these young men made him feel like he was around his own people – which he was. Some of these people would eventually join the insurgency, but some didn’t. Some of them are still sitting around in cafes in Dagestan. I think that it was a radical experience, but it’s not like he met somebody there who radicalized him into becoming a terrorist.

BNR: You made an interesting point that when a terrorist attack occurs in the U.S., people tend to react like it comes out of nowhere – like there wasn’t any political action or other event that caused it.

MG: Right.

BNR: Where do you think this feeling comes from – this sort of lack of responsibility?

MG: Well, it’s like what George Bush said after September 11th, that “they hate our freedom.” Actually, no. We have such a low tolerance for conversation about terrorism that the moment you start saying, “No, these people are reacting to something real,” it sounds like you’re justifying terrorism. To propose that there is a causal relationship is not the same thing as to say that the effect is equal to the cause, or that it’s justified. There is not a single cause. It’s not that American drones directly lead to terrorist attacks. But American drones, combined with the American glorification of terrorism, combined with other related events, do lead to terrorism. And until we are willing to acknowledge that without shutting everybody up and saying, “You are justifying terrorism,” there is no way that we are going to deal with it effectively.

BNR: So, there was just something larger than life about the Marathon bombings, even though very few people died in comparison to other attacks of this kind.

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen

MG: That’s the way terrorism works – by impressing upon the imagination. To give an example, the Boston bombings seemed so much more horrible than the chemical accident at the Waco plant that same week. There was this huge industrial accident that devastated a community; a smaller community than Boston, but it killed many more people. It was almost the perfect event to compare to the Boston Marathon bombings, because we don’t expect workplace accidents. We do expect, for example, car accidents, and some pointed out that fewer people died in the World Trade Center attack than die every year on American roads. It’s a rhetorical device, but it’s not a good one, because though we expect such things as murder and car accidents, they don’t happen all at once.

The bombings and the Waco accident were both equally unexpected and calamitous. One took more lives, and it just kind of blew over – not for the people who were there, but for the media and public-at-large. The bombings live on, and that’s the point. It is the terrorists’ goal to create the scariest spectacle imaginable, and that’s what makes it effective.

Then there’s the media reaction that makes the whole thing so much bigger. It’s really difficult to try to recalibrate our reaction to terrorism. But it’s the only thing that can make it less effective – if we learn to treat it as a common crime and refuse to accept it as a declaration of war. Why should a couple of thugs who built pressure cooker bombs be able to declare war on the state? They don’t have that right. You have to be a state agent. You have to have an army. That’s a really, really hard thing to keep in perspective.

BNR: And depending on who actually perpetrates the attack can lead to a very different reaction. If you look at the Marathon bombings compared with the Aurora or Sandy Hook shootings, the intense FBI interrogations and deportations that occurred after the Tsarnaevs’ attack just did not occur in those cases. You mention in the book that the FBI believes it understands the “angry white men” who commit these horrible crimes, but that they do not understand people like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.

MG: What sort of mental trick do we play with ourselves that makes it less dramatic for society as a whole to witness the killing of children in school? We actually know what happens when children are killed in school by terrorists. By “terrorists” in this case, I mean people with a larger mission. Because that’s the only real difference, aside from skin color, that exists between those school shootings and terrorist attacks. In one case, we don’t know if there is one, but it probably doesn’t go beyond “I hate you all.” But in the other case, there’s sort of a ritual apparatus attached to it.

In the book, I describe what happened in Russia when Chechen terrorists took hostages at a school in South Ossetia, and 300 children died. I was there at the time, and I remember being so traumatized by it along with the entire country. It’s been more than ten years since it happened, but it’s changed the perception of the first day of school for an entire generation. And that’s because it was terrorists, and not a random guy with a gun who had no larger message.

BNR: Another component of this story that was so striking was what happened to Dzhokhar’s friends after being arrested for hiding, or throwing away some of his belongings. The charges were vastly different depending on their immigration status. Robel Phillipos, an American citizen, was charged with lying to investigators, whereas Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, who were here on student visas, were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice – a crime that carries a much heavier sentence. They were all involved, but there’s this huge disparity in the indictments.

MG: I think that the American justice system cannot deal with terrorism for structural reasons. I will try to answer a bigger question. If I look at the obstruction of justice trials of Azamat and Dias, it’s very clear what’s not happening – it’s the attempt to find the truth. The American justice system was not created for finding the truth. It’s based on an adversarial process, which is different from an inquest like you would see in other countries. It’s two different sides making their cases, each choosing only the evidence that’s relevant to their argument —and then there’s no one else that’s looking for what really happened.

Right now, in the Tsarnaev trial, we have the prosecution making the case that he is a monster and he should be put to death, and they have the defense making the case that he’s not so much a monster, and should live. Those are the cases they are making, and the truth is not going to emerge from that. Both sides are doing their job, which is not to figure out what happened. They are under no obligation to help us understand.

The same thing happened with Dzhokhar’s friends. The prosecution did not have to charge Robel and Azamat with the same crimes. There’s actually no requirement that people who did the same thing have to be charged equally. In the cases of Muslim emigrants and a Christian, American-born kid, those charges are vastly different. That’s a fact

As I said, it’s a structural problem. If our society is fixated on a particular topic, then people who fall in that category of trials are going to suffer. And we’re crazy on the topic of terrorism.

There’s something called the terrorism adjustment, which is in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. It’s the reason why we’re talking about such huge sentences for Azamat and Dias (up to 25 years) and even for Robel (up to 17). So the Federal Sentencing Guidelines rank every crime, and then they mark it up if it’s related to a terrorism investigation. So if you lie to prosecutors in a murder case, the crime ranks as X, and if you lie to prosecutors in a terrorism case, it’s X+Y. Which is insane! But it’s in the guidelines.

BNR: This book is very timely in that it’s coming out during Dzhokhar’s trial. What would you like people to understand after reading it?

MG: I actually just want them to have the experience of seeing these people as people, which I think is the first step to being able to have a conversation. Starting with September 11th, this country has indeed been at war with terrorism, or with the War on Terror, which is a nonsensical term. Terror is an emotion, and you end up having a war with no objective and no identifiable adversaries.

But during war, your enemy is dehumanized. And that’s another distinction between a school shooter and a terrorist. A school shooter gets to be a person. We delve into his mental problems. We ask questions about other young men like him. There are ultimately all sorts of intelligent and stupid conversations. But we have those conversations about people as people.

With terrorists we don’t have those conversations. We immediately put them in the category of Terrorist, which is not human. It’s necessary in war to not see your enemy as human. I say this as a war reporter. You see people go through that process of turning people who used to be their neighbors and friends into something less-than-human, sometimes overnight. But you can’t have a resolution, and you can’t find a solution unless you are going to see the people on the other side as human.

My job as a writer is to tell a story. It’s not to change policy. It’s not going to change people’s minds. The story I tried to tell is the story of these people, and if that’s how it’s read, then I think it works.

BNR: So what do you think will happen to Dzhokhar?

MG: There’s no way to tell. They are going to have an instant guilty verdict on Monday, and then the sentencing phase will begin. The defense has to find one juror who will vote against the death penalty. That’s very possible.

This is not my hunch as a reporter. It’s my hunch as a human being. I think at least one of those 12 people has to buy the argument that this kid didn’t quite know what he was doing.


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