The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy

by Masha Gessen


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Look out for Masha Gessen's new book, THE FUTURE IS HISTORY, coming October 2017

“A gripping narrative and a stunning piece of investigative journalism… [that] gives us the human side to the story of two young men who must be understood as more than monsters” (Christian Science Monitor)

On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 264 others. In the ensuing manhunt, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and brought to trial. Yet even after the guilty verdict and the death sentence, what we didn't know was why. Why did the American Dream go so wrong for two immigrants? How did such a nightmare come to pass?

Acclaimed Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen is uniquely able to tell us. A teenage immigrant herself, she returned to Russia to cover firsthand the transformations that wracked the region from the 1990s on. It is there that she begins her astonishing account of the Tsarnaev brothers, descendants of ethnic Chechens deported to Central Asia in the Stalin era. Following the family in their futile attempts to make a life for themselves in one war-torn locale after another and then, as new émigrés, in an utterly disorienting new world, she reconstructs the brothers' struggle between assimilation and alienation, which incubated a deadly sense of mission. And she traces how such a split in identity can fuel the metamorphosis into a new breed of homegrown terrorist, with feet on American soil but sense of self elsewhere. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594634000
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 802,409
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of several books, most recently the national bestseller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead, 2012) and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead, 2014).  Her work has appeared in  the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times,  The New York Review of Books, Slate, and many other publications, and has received numerous awards, most recently the 2013 Media for Liberty Award. She has served as the editor of several publications and as director of Radio Liberty’s Russia Service. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt







The Brothers: Tamerlan, wife Karima (formerly Katherine Russell), daughter Zahira; and Dzhokhar (later Jahar)

Parents: Anzor and Zubeidat

Paternal grandparents: Zayndy and Liza

Paternal uncles, aunts, and cousins: Ayndy; Malkan and son Husein; Maret; Alvi, wife Zhanar, children Aindy and Luiza; Ruslan, first wife Samantha Fuller, father-in-law Graham Fuller

Sisters: Bella, husband Rizvan, son Ramzan; Ailina, husband Elmirza, son Ziaudy

Cousin: Jamal Tsarnaev


Friends and neighbors: Semyon and Alladin Abaev, Anzor’s closest friends; Badrudi and Zina Tsokaev, neighbors and advisors; Alaudin and Aziz Batukaev, organized-crime bosses; Raisa Batukaeva, next-door neighbor and unofficial Chechen community leader; Ruslan Zakriev, owner of amusement park and official leader of Chechen community; Yakha Tsokaeva and Madina, friends in Bishkek, the capital

School personnel: Lubov Shulzhenko, Tamerlan’s principal; Natalya Kurochkina, Tamerlan’s grade-school teacher


Gasan Gasanaliyev, imam of Makhachkala’s Kotrov Street mosque

Magomed Kartashov, Tamerlan’s second cousin, head of Union of the Just

Mohammed Gadzhiev, Kartashov’s deputy

Kheda Saratova, human rights advocate


Other Chechen immigrant families: Khassan Baiev (sambo champion, plastic surgeon, author), wife Zara Tokaeva, children Islam and Maryam; Makhmud (Max) Mazaev (owner of an elder-care center), wife Anna, son Baudy (Boston University student); Hamzat Umarov, wife Raisa

Joanna Herlihy, the Tsarnaevs’ landlady

Nadine Ascencao, Tamerlan’s girlfriend

Brendan Mess, Tamerlan’s best friend, murdered in 2011 along with Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken

Donald Larking, home-care client of Zubeidat and later Karima

Norfolk Street neighbors: Rinat Harel, Chris LaRoche

At Cambridge Rindge and Latin: Larry Aaronson, retired history teacher and photographer; Steve Matteo, English teacher; Lulu Emmons, former classmate of Jahar’s; Luis Vasquez, Tamerlan’s friend

Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, marathon bombing victim who was an early suspect

Other early suspects: Sunil Tripathi, Salaheddin Barhoum, Yassine Zaimi

Boston-area law enforcement: Sean Collier, murdered MIT campus security officer; Richard Donohue, wounded transit cop; Jeff Pugliese, Watertown policeman; David Earle, Essex County police detective also on the Joint Terrorism Task Force; Timothy Alben, Massachusetts State Police superintendent; Farbod Azad, Kenneth Benton, Scott Cieplik, Michael Delapena, Richard DesLauriers, Dwight Schwader, John Walker, Sara Wood, all FBI; Douglas Woodlock, federal judge; Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney; Scott Riley and Stephanie Siegmann, Assistant U.S. Attorneys

“Danny,” owner of the SUV hijacked by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar

Khairullozhon “Kair” Matanov, taxi driver, refugee from Kyrgyzstan, friend of Tamerlan; attorney Edward Hayden

Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts


Robel Phillipos, Jahar’s friend, also from Cambridge Rindge and Latin; friend Elohe Dereje (Maryland); attorney Derege Demissie

Dias Kadyrbayev, from Kazakhstan; girlfriend Bayan Kumiskali

Azamat Tazhayakov, from Kazakhstan; father Amir Ismagulov; attorneys Nicholas Wooldridge and Arkady Bukh (New York)

Andrew Dwinells, Jahar’s roommate

Other friends and classmates of Jahar’s: Pamela Rolon; Alexa Guevara; Tiffany Evora; Lino Rosas; Quan Le Phan, Robel’s former roommate; Jim Li, Quan’s roommate

Brian Williams, teacher of class on Chechnya


Almut Rochowanski, founder of legal aid organization for Chechen refugees (New York)

Musa Khadzhimuratov, Max Mazaev’s paralyzed cousin; wife Madina, son Ibragim (later Abraham), daughter Malika (Manchester, New Hampshire)

Ibragim Todashev, Chechen immigrant killed during questioning by FBI agents and Boston police in 2013 (Orlando, Florida); wife Reni Manukyan, born Evgenia (Nyusha) Nazarenko (Atlanta), her mother, Elena Teyer (Savannah, Georgia), and her brother, Alex (Atlanta); girlfriend Tatiana Gruzdeva (Orlando); father Abdulbaki Todashev (Chechnya); best friend Khusein Taramov (Orlando; later Russia); lawyer Zuarbek Sadokhanov

Yerlan Kubashev, with the consulate of Kazakhstan in New York



Visit http://bit.ly/brothersmap1 for a larger version of this map.


YOU CAN BE PROUD OF BEING A DAGESTANI, proclaim the billboards lining the highway from the airport to Makhachkala. It is the spring of 2013. The billboards picture, by way of argument, the recently appointed head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, speaking with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Both look unhappy, but the photo op, apparently a one-time occurrence, seems not to have generated a better option.

The highway to the capital, like so much of Dagestan, is an object of pride and an embarrassment at the same time. It was built recently, and well; it is by far the best road in Dagestan, so good that at night young men race their souped-up Lada Priora sedans here. The Lada Priora is a bad, Russian-made car, but its twentieth-century technology lends itself to quick fixes. Which is a good thing, because as the road enters the city, turning into the main avenue, the smooth surface gives way to potholes that can cost you your tire or your life.

Outside the city, the highway is lined with unfinished houses, scores of them. They betray modest ambition—small two-story structures along a highway—and yet even this dream has gone unfulfilled. Rectangular openings stare at the highway where windows should be. Cows graze in between these carcasses and wander lazily onto the highway.

People you meet in Dagestan will tell you where else they have been. They have rarely ventured very far, but they have invariably found any other place to be remarkably different. Several drivers tell me that in Moscow or Saint Petersburg or even provincial Astrakhan, three hundred miles to the north of Makhachkala, people do not drive into natural-gas fueling stations (almost everyone in Dagestan seems to drive a car retrofitted for natural gas) with a lit cigarette in their mouths. In Astrakhan, one man tells me, they get all the passengers out of the car before refueling. This kind of regard for human life awes and baffles him. Astrakhan is no hub of bourgeois humanitarianism, but then, compared with Dagestan, almost anyplace is.

The Russian Federation includes eighty-three nominally self-governing regions, districts, autonomies, and republics; the republics differ from the rest of the convoluted federation’s members in that they have the right to choose their own state language—mostly because the republics are, by and large, populated by non-Russian ethnic groups. Dagestan, a republic, sits on the edge of the Russian empire, a mere two and a half hours by plane south-southeast from Moscow but as culturally remote as the far northeast, where Russia borders the United States, or the far east, where it seeps into China. Dagestan borders Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south and war-torn Chechnya to the north. Throughout its history as a part of Russia, Dagestan has been one of the poorest parts of the empire, and one of the most embattled. It has also always been the most diverse, with dozens of distinct ethnic groups living in various states of war and peace. Each group has a fiercely defined identity, but no single ethnic group claims the region as an ersatz nation-state, and a Dagestani identity per se can hardly be said to exist. So the billboards seem to be calling on people to take pride simply in living in Dagestan. But why would anyone want to live here?

This is where the story begins.

•   •   •

FIRST, Zubeidat ran from Makhachkala. In May 1985, she was walking in the outskirts of Novosibirsk, terrified of getting into trouble, though most people back home would have said she was asking for trouble just by being in Novosibirsk. She had graduated from high school in Makhachkala a year earlier, and she wanted to go to college. Worse, she wanted to go to Moscow. One of her older brothers lived there, and from what she could tell, this brother was an important person. He worked in retail, which in the Soviet Union meant access to all sorts of nice things and influential people, and she had kept calling him, begging him to take her out of Makhachkala.

Makhachkala is a hard place to love. In the 2010s, a pair of journalists who set out to compile an oral history of the city, a coffee-table book with lots of nostalgic sepia-colored photographs, were repeatedly told by the residents they interviewed how unlivable Makhachkala had always been, what a misunderstanding of a city it was. A locally prominent artist called it “a town without a legend” that was “unsuited for normal life.” A fort reconstituted as a town in the mid–nineteenth century, it felt like a haphazard and temporary agglomeration of more than a hundred ethnic groups, each of which maintained its own language and used variously simplified and mangled Russian to communicate with one another and the outside world. Streets bore the names of the ethnic groups that had originally settled there: Armenian Street crossed Persian Street. Soviet authorities renamed the streets in the spirit of internationalism and Communist ideology, but the old designations remained in the vernacular. Each group made its own living arrangements, usually unaided by the Communist state that had assumed the obligation for sheltering and feeding all citizens but failed consistently, and failed worse the farther from the center the citizens resided. People lived in barracks, in rehabbed fort structures, in sheds and other temporary dwellings, and well into the late twentieth century, indoor plumbing and cooking facilities remained the stuff of dreams.

Neighborhood borders were inviolate: a male outsider who tried to date a neighborhood girl would be knifed. The single unifying culture of the city was that of the prison. There were eight prison camps within the city limits before Stalin’s death in 1953; once released, many of the inmates stayed on in the city. In at least one case, a camp was abolished and the barbed-wire fence removed, but the barracks were simply renamed “dormitories” and everybody stayed. The city jail, which never stopped functioning, sat up on a hill, a major landmark and the center of the switchblade-making industry. Every Makhachkala-born male past the age of puberty had to own a switchblade that had been smuggled out of the jail and sold on the black market.

Not that there was much of a legal economy: centrally distributed consumer goods rarely reached Russia’s southern edge. Makhachkalinians wore clothes and shoes made by local tailors and cobblers—there was one of each on nearly every block—and ate fish caught in the Caspian Sea by local poachers, who went door-to-door every day hawking sturgeon and black-backed herring so fatty it could be tossed into a skillet with no oil. Yet the Caspian itself seemed to have no place in the city, or in any story about it. A gentle, light blue sea that is actually the world’s largest lake, the Caspian was cut off from Makhachkala by a railroad constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. Only a thin strip of sand, barely a hundred yards at its narrowest, separated the water from the rails. The sounds of the railroad drowned out the murmur of the sea, and the bitter smell of tar, the metallic smell of hot rails, and the smoke of the engines overwhelmed the Caspian’s softly salty air.

Whether people lived in nineteenth-century stone buildings or twentieth-century wooden barracks, they dwelled a family to a room if they were lucky, and used the courtyards for all their daily needs: wood-burning stoves for cooking, wooden outhouses never far away. At night young men went yard to yard, scooping human waste into large barrels mounted on their horse-driven carts, nicknamed “stinkies.” Household waste flowed in open trenches along city streets until the 1960s, when, legend has it, old gravestones were used to enclose the trenches in the city center—there are still residents who claim to have seen Arabic writing beneath their feet.

Dwellings with indoor conveniences came in the 1960s, too, but in 1970 an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale shook Dagestan. The epicenter was less than twenty miles west of Makhachkala. Thirty-one people died and half the city’s population was left homeless. Twenty-two villages outside the city were completely destroyed, and their residents, too, flooded into Makhachkala even as more than a thousand aftershocks, some of them nearly as strong as the original quake, shook the city over the following six weeks. Makhachkala returned to the premodern state to which it seemed doomed.

A year later, the newly underequipped and overcrowded city was hit by a cholera epidemic. Moscow shut Makhachkala down: anyone who wanted to leave the city had to be tested for the germ and was not allowed to travel until cleared. The city’s population swelled further with those waiting to travel out of Dagestan.

•   •   •

ZUBEIDAT WAS BORN in Makhachkala three years before the earthquake. By the time she was a teenager, she was acutely and painfully aware of living in a backwater. Even the Chechens, who lived right next door and had been decimated by forced exile, had a real city: Grozny had fashion and music. It was from Grozny that young men would bring records and reel-to-reel tapes for Makhachkala’s first diskotekas—a fancy word for dances—in the early 1980s. To create disco lighting, the young men stole colored glass from traffic lights and, at great peril to themselves, flashing lights off police cars. In Grozny, young men were not too timid to wear pointy cowboy boots, which had roared into fashion; Makhachkalinians, who did not dare wear them, called them nokhchi-boots, or Chechen-boots. Men in Makhachkala still wore visored hats nicknamed “airport caps” for the exceedingly large flat surface they created on the wearer’s head. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union these caps marked men as hailing from the remote Caucasian provinces, but in Dagestan they were privileged as city wear: country folk wore fluffy white sheepskin hats. The possession most coveted by any young person who wanted to escape Makhachkala’s provincial uniformity was a white plastic bag printed with a full-color photograph of a man’s behind in Wrangler jeans. These cost up to five rubles on the black market; a loaf of bread ran sixteen kopecks, or just over three percent of the price of the plastic bag.

Everyone in Makhachkala knew everything about everyone else. There was one Russian Orthodox church in the city and, directly across the street, one abortion clinic. Being seen entering either could ruin one’s reputation for life—the church because of Party prohibitions on religion, and the clinic because, while most Soviet women strove to control their fertility and had few means of doing that aside from abortion, Dagestani women were having more babies than women almost anywhere else in the USSR were having, and staying home to raise them. The home was ruled by the men in accordance with Adat, a set of rules that were said to derive from Islam but were largely local customs. Most of the local populations were Muslim; the Russian colonizers had imported Russian Orthodoxy, and migrants had brought Greek Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Judaism. The Communists had banned the open organized practice of all religions, and in Muslim groups over the course of decades the family and community practices of Adat came to reign supreme—and to be conflated with Islam in the popular understanding.

Customs differed somewhat even between closely related Muslim ethnic groups such as Chechens and Avars, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. In both traditions, though, the eldest brother ruled over all siblings. Zubeidat was Avar, so if she wanted to go live with her brother in Moscow, she first had to ask her eldest brother, who lived in Novosibirsk, in southwestern Siberia. That was where she had gone, then, to ask his permission.

While the eldest brother was thinking it over, August, the month of entrance exams to Soviet colleges, came and went. At least Zubeidat was now out of Makhachkala, though at some point in the not-too-distant future she would be expected to travel back to Dagestan and marry a young man from an Avar family with whom preliminary arrangements had been made. The Avars did not practice arranged marriages, strictly speaking, or practice them strictly—dating and romance were allowed by some families some of the time—but marriage agreements were always made between the men of the families, and no one ever married outside the ethnic group. Premarital sex, for the women, was punishable by death: the Soviets had done nothing to end honor killings.

Novosibirsk was not Moscow, of course, but much more important, it was not Makhachkala. In fact, a city could not be less like Makhachkala: it was vast, uncrowded, its central squares and avenues a vision in Stalinist grandeur that looked better from the air than they did at street level, where all that scale made a person feel bug-tiny. Zubeidat’s brother lived in a neighborhood of two-story stone buildings constructed by German prisoners of war in the 1940s, and gray-brick five-story buildings from Khrushchev’s socialist-construction boom of the 1950s, a few taller apartment blocks from the 1970s, and even a few wooden barracks-like structures left over from when some group or other had been warehoused there. Still, even this haphazard collection of unattractive architecture was assembled with so much space between buildings that Zubeidat never forgot she was in the big city—and this was why she had kept stretching out the months until she returned to Dagestan.

The neighborhood abutted a trade school on one end and a jail on the other. The trade school, which trained retail-store managers, had mostly young women for students, and Zubeidat had become friendly with a few who lived in the dormitories there. Still, the proximity of the jail always made her slightly nervous about walking home to her brother’s place alone, even on a May evening when the light was a soft gray and would stay that way until midnight. When she sensed someone walking behind her, she jerked around.

The man was not scary at all. In her mind she immediately marked him as parnishka, a Russian diminutive for “guy.” He was slight, even skinny, and he was wearing a green military shirt and green slacks without the jacket or the hat that would complete the uniform; this was the way a man who had recently left the service or would soon be leaving it would dress. Zubeidat turned back around and continued walking, so relieved as to feel almost joyful. The stranger must have sensed this, because he caught up with her and fell in step.

“Devushka,” he said—“girl”—using the standard form of address for an unfamiliar young woman, “do you happen to know Tanya, who lives in room twenty-seven in the trade-school dorm?”

“I do,” said Zubeidat, and decided she was walking to the dorm. “I can fetch her for you, if you want.”

“And you are her . . . ?” he asked. He seemed a little confused about what he wanted, or what he wanted to know.

“I’m just an acquaintance,” said Zubeidat.

“Where are you from yourself?”

“Dagestan,” said Zubeidat.

“And I’m from Chechnya,” said Anzor Tsarnaev. This was not true: he was Chechen, but he had grown up in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, fifteen hundred miles from Chechnya. Nor did he want anything with that girl named Tanya: she was just someone going out with a friend of his, and he asked about her because he needed something to say before he could ask this girl’s name.

Now she said, “That makes us brother and sister.”

“I’m so happy right now,” said Anzor. “I’ve met a kindred spirit. You know, I was just taking a walk, I wasn’t going anywhere in particular.”

Which meant they could talk. Zubeidat told him that she was from Makhachkala and she was staying with her brother and that another brother was an important man in Moscow. Anzor told her he was finishing up his military service. He was a boxer and had won some competitions, and his job was coaching.

“I have to go because I have a curfew,” she finally said. “My brother is strict. But if you want to know, I’ll tell you that this is the building where I live, my brother’s building. We come from the same land, you and I.”

•   •   •

THEY DID LOOK like brother and sister, thin, sharp-featured, and constantly animated. They both hail from ethnic groups that come by girth naturally and cultivate it: the men wrestle, box, and engage in other martial arts that favor bulk; the women bear many children; and heavy, grainy home-baked bread is the traditional basis of all meals. Anzor and Zubeidat liked their own skinniness and worked to protect it, and friends sometimes mocked them for this. Zubeidat thought they looked as beautiful and exotic as two swans, and a quarter-century later, when they had moved halfway across the world, she took to telling people that “the Swans” had been their nickname back home. Anzor’s love for Zubeidat, which he said befell him at first sight, was anything but brotherly. It was romantic in a way most unusual for men from these parts and especially for men from his culture, in which to this day the wedding ritual involves “stealing” the bride from her father’s home, which in many cases indeed involves force.

“Can we see each other tomorrow?” Anzor asked. He had a way of projecting resolve and shyness at the same time, a combination Zubeidat thought was lovely. Her younger son would inherit it from Anzor, this disarming quality of being at once confident and openly vulnerable.

“I don’t know,” Zubeidat said. “I think we are going to the countryside tomorrow. Maybe we can see each other in a couple of days. You can come here if you want, just make sure my brother doesn’t see you.” She knew he knew that without her having to say it.

Anzor came back the following day.

“We didn’t end up going,” said Zubeidat.

“It’s like I had a feeling you’d be here,” said Anzor.

The day after that they had a date, and he brought flowers. Young men around here typically always brought girls roses—in fact, Zubeidat had already rebuffed a couple of them, though it hadn’t been because of the roses—but Anzor brought a mixed bouquet of wildflowers.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said.

“I’ve been walking past this flower shop every day,” he said. “I’ve been thinking, Someday I’ll meet a girl and then I’ll get her that bouquet.”

•   •   •

ZUBEIDAT PANICKED EARLY, possibly as early as that first date. “They’ll never let us marry,” she said. “Not even my brother. Even though he left Dagestan so long ago that he lives like a Russian—he’ll never let me marry someone who is not Avar.”

“You know, I don’t care,” Anzor said. “If our families say no, we’ll just run away. I’ll be your mother, your father, your brother, and your sister.”

But first he was going to take her to his family’s home in Kyrgyzstan. By this time Zubeidat knew that, though they both claimed to hail from the Caucasus and in a way they both did, Anzor was a man born in exile. And Zubeidat was perhaps starting to sense that she was born for exile.

•   •   •

ON MARCH 7, 1944, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed a resolution that began:

Whereas in the course of the Patriotic War, especially while the German fascist armies were active in the Caucasus, many Chechens and Ingush betrayed the Motherland, switched over to the side of the fascist occupiers, joined the ranks of saboteurs and intelligence-gatherers dispatched by the Germans to the rear of the Red Army, created, at the Germans’ direction, armed groups to fight against the Soviet authorities, and in light of the fact that many Chechens and Ingush over the course of many years took part in armed attacks on the Soviet authorities and over the course of a long time, rather than engage in honest labor, committed armed robberies on the collective farms in neighboring regions, robbing and killing Soviet people, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR has resolved:

1. All Chechens and Ingush residing on the territory of the Chechen Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and neighboring areas shall be moved to other areas of the USSR and the Chechen Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic shall be liquidated.

This resolution, which was unclassified but also unpublished, had been preceded by a series of secret meetings, resolutions, and decrees convened and issued over the course of about six months. As the Red Army pushed the Germans out of the Caucasus and began to advance in Belarus and Ukraine as well, Stalin had become obsessed with the Soviet citizens living in the parts of the country the Germans had occupied starting in 1941. Throughout the war he had believed that soldiers who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were traitors. Those lucky enough to have been freed were immediately re-incarcerated in the Gulag, for treason. What about those who lived in their own homes under German rule for years? Were they similarly contaminated? Had they welcomed the Germans? Had they cooperated willingly, cooking and cleaning for them and enforcing German rule in their own land? Had they over time come to like the Germans? Had they come to love them? Did they remain loyal to them after the occupation ended? What was the Soviet regime to do with the millions of its own citizens who were now suspect? Stalin might have liked to exterminate or exile the entire populations of Ukraine and Belarus, but they were too large to be isolated or removed effectively—and in any case, at the time he was confronted with the problem of the Caucasus, the Red Army had not yet advanced far into Ukraine and Belarus.

Stalin, who was half Ossetian—a North Caucasian ethnic group that is majority Christian—was perhaps most suspicious of the Muslims in the region. The largest Muslim group in the Russian North Caucasus were the Chechens, traditionally cattle farmers in the mountains and grain farmers in the valleys. Among them, an anti-Soviet insurgency had indeed existed, and it had welcomed the Germans, though most of Chechnya was in fact never occupied and the majority of Chechens were, by all accounts, loyal Soviet citizens. The Chechens were the largest group to face deportation, though not the only one. In all, seven ethnic groups with a total population of over 1.5 million would be removed from lands on which they had lived, and which they had defended for centuries in many wars. They would be moved to what, on the map, looked like vast empty space in Soviet Central Asia: over a million people would go to Kazakhstan and the rest to Kyrgyzstan. Smaller numbers of other exiles had already been shipped there—the Kalmyks, a Buddhist people who had lived on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, and ethnic Germans, who had once settled along the Volga River.

On February 23, 1944, all Chechens living in Chechnya and neighboring republics were ordered to report to designated assembly points in their towns and villages. They were loaded onto trucks or marched the distance—sometimes dozens of miles over snowy forested mountains—to the trains that would take them to Central Asia. In at least one location about seven hundred elderly, disabled, and people too young or too weak to make the trek from their high-altitude villages were herded into a barn and burned alive. Resisters, protesters, and sometimes the merely confused and slow were shot on the spot. Over half a million Chechens and Ingush—a closely related smaller ethnic group—were loaded onto cattle cars, which began the nearly two-thousand-mile journey to Central Asia. About 85,000 of them would end up in Kyrgyzstan: the trains began arriving March 4, a week after they left Chechnya and three days before the Supreme Soviet issued its resolution. This was less than half a year before the first Nazi concentration camp was liberated and the Western world began a decades-long inquiry into the fates of other exiles and the trains that had carried them. The fate of the deported peoples of the Caucasus would never be similarly examined.

Over the years frightful estimates of the number of people who died en route to Central Asia have circulated, but in fact the journey was essentially undocumented: the sealed trains passed through the country anonymously, never stopping for food supplies or bathroom breaks. The exiles fashioned holes in the floors of their overcrowded cars to relieve themselves; they tried to ration such supplies of bread and water as some of them had carried; washing was out of the question. The typhus epidemic began on the trains. When the first trains pulled into Kyrgyzstan on March 4, they carried twenty-five corpses—the exiles had thrown off the rest of the bodies along the way, in the vain hope of avoiding contagion. Eight hundred people were diagnosed with typhus on arrival.

Before the exiles arrived, local authorities had reported to Moscow that they had set aside enough supplies to feed the newcomers for four months. The rations were set at 116 grams of flour and 56 grams of grain a day per person—significantly less than the starvation rations of Auschwitz-Birkenau. By April 1, some 125,000 people had arrived from the Caucasus, members of seven distinct ethnic groups. Of them, 52,876 were judged fit for work upon arrival. Four months later, the number of those fit for work was 43,713: most of the nine thousand people who had lost their ability to work were, in the language of the corresponding reports, “extremely emaciated.” In those first four months 5,128 people died, including 770 from typhus and 1,778 from starvation. The malaria epidemic began in midsummer.

If the meager supplies ostensibly prepared for the deportation ever really existed, they were not getting to the exiles. A secret report on the inspection of a collective farm in June 1944 stated that the “special settlers,” as the authorities euphemistically called them, were not working, or working sufficiently well, “mostly due to the absence of food supplies, as a consequence of which the absolute majority of the special settlers are extremely emaciated. . . . Thirteen people have died as a result of typhus and starvation. Ill people in a state of extreme emaciation, essentially at death’s door, as of June 8 this year number 40, including 20 children. . . . Special settlers are eating mostly grass. . . . No one is keeping track of special-settler deaths.” The report described the mother of four children aged two to ten, the three youngest of whom could no longer move; she was making them soup out of grass. Reports from other collective farms painted a similar picture, but introduced a new category beyond “extremely emaciated.” This category was “bloated.”

Some of the exiles were placed in collective-farm housing, never spacious to begin with. Usually this meant that a local family who occupied a two-room house had to cede one of the rooms to a family of newcomers. The local families resisted, perceiving the arrival of the exiles, rightly, as a threat not only to their space but to their health: typhus soon spread to the local population. Still, for the exiles, being forced into someone’s house was infinitely preferable to the alternatives: being warehoused in unfinished or vacant, usually unheated apartments, generally three families to a room; being warehoused in common village spaces such as a collective-farm cafeteria or meeting hall; or being shoved into unheated tents or mud huts. Authorities directed the collective farms to construct housing for “special settlers,” but the most construction materials any of the collective farms appear to have been issued was thirty-two logs to put up barracks, the roof to be made of locally collected reeds. No construction appears to have commenced by the fall, when the weather started turning cold again.

Exiles were to be issued plots of land and seeds for planting, but most could not bring themselves to bury even a single grain seed in the ground; they ate them. The few who did manage to plant did not know how to work the local land—and the plots they had been issued were by definition the undesirable, difficult ones. No one had a harvest that year.

The “special settlers” were more than an imposition on the locals: they were, it was well established, the enemies of the people. They lacked even the limited civil rights accorded ordinary Soviet citizens. They had to check in regularly with local secret-police representatives, as one might check in with a parole officer. Secret-police clearance was required for the most quotidian of actions, such as seeking help at a medical clinic. The secret-police officers had a range of disciplinary measures at their disposal, including fines and up to ten days’ administrative arrest.

Other locals also treated the exiles as one would treat the enemy. One collective-farm chairman loaded seven families on three horse-driven carts and instructed the drivers to take them to another town and dump them at the side of the road. This was to serve as a lesson not only for these families but also for the “special settlers” remaining in his village: they too would be expelled if they did not work hard enough. In this case, law enforcement investigated the incident and concluded that none of the members of the seven families was actually physically fit to work. Other collective-farm chairmen claimed that they did not need any additional hands and simply refused to acknowledge the “special settlers,” in the hope of driving them away. They not only withheld rations but also instructed the village store not to sell to the new arrivals. Inspection reports describe numerous instances of local authority figures beating the children of the exiles, sometimes to death. The beatings of adults are not mentioned, probably because they were not seen as warranting notice.

Zayndy Tsarnaev, Anzor’s father, was brought to Kyrgyzstan at the age of thirteen. The family was placed about forty miles east of the Kyrgyz capital, Frunze, in Tokmok, a settlement wedged in a narrow valley between the Kyrgyz Range and the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Local legend has it that the Soviets once considered making Tokmok the capital, but the Chu, a furious mountain river that took over the entire valley every spring, rendered the location unsuitable. When the exiles arrived in Kyrgyzstan, an effort to harness the Chu was under way. The men were immediately rounded up and loaded onto horse-driven carts, which took them to the construction site for the future hydroelectric plant. Delivered late at night, the men escaped early the next morning to look for the railroad station so that they could go back to help their families. Secret-police files overflow with reports and complaints filed by construction supervisors, who demanded a police cordon at the site to keep the men from leaving. The paperwork details living conditions at the site. There was no shelter. There were no bathing facilities, which meant the men were flea-ridden. They received two meals a day, at six in the morning and at five in the evening. The rations consisted solely of grain and water. As the men died off, secret police conducted raids to round up new workers from among the special settlers and deliver them to the site. Construction supervisors complained the new arrivals were unfit for work because they were not only extremely emaciated but also naked and barefoot.

The death rate among the exiles remained steady through the freezing spring and the scorching summer; they entered the winter of 1944–1945 with no suitable shelter or reliable source of sustenance, and the dying continued. The following year decimated the survivors, and the year after that killed many of those who remained. And yet, after three or four years—after the death of half or more of the Chechen population, after the pain and humiliation and dread of living in an open-air prison and, incongruously, in a constant state of uncertainty—the life of the “special settlers” appeared to stabilize. They were still, in essence, prisoners, with their movement and activities severely restricted and violence a daily threat, but they gradually secured housing and, to some extent, succeeded in assimilating. Some families continued to hold their children back from Russian- and Kyrgyz-language schools—Chechen-language education had effectively been outlawed—but after a few years this was a small, albeit constant, minority. Access to the legal local economy, accorded only to fully vested Soviet citizens, never really opened up to the exiles, but the Chechens compensated by creating gray-market trading systems, so that after a few years they were not only able to move out of cramped barracks and freezing mud huts but also became providers of coveted goods for the locals—and since virtually all goods were in short supply, most goods were indeed coveted. While most families submitted to having their children educated at Russian- and Kyrgyz-language schools, virtually everyone still spoke Chechen at home, considered intermarriage impossible, and continued to live in accordance with Adat, which, in exile, gradually became both more important and less detailed.

•   •   •


Excerpted from "The Brothers"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Masha Gessen.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xi

Part 1 Dislocation

Map: The Tsarnaevs' Journey 3

1 Love 5

2 Wandering 27

3 Dreaming of America 37

Part 2 Becoming the Bombers

Map: The Failed Escape 53

4 Coming to America 55

5 A Decade of Broken Dreams 67

6 His Place in the World 101

7 Patriots' Day 117

8 They Are Us 131

Part 3 Aftermath

9 How Musa Khadzhimuratov Fell Out of Love with America 159

10 The Strange Death of Ibragim Todashev 171

11 Everyone is Going to Jail 197

12 What Will We Know? 233

Epilogue 261

Author's Note 272

Selected Bibliography 274

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Words Will Break Cement

“Urgent . . . damning.” —The New York Times

Praise for The Man Without a Face
“[An] unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating, hard-hitting reading.” —Foreign Affairs


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Masha Gessen

"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 thirty 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 fifteen 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 twelve 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 twelve-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 ten 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.

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 atthe 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 twenty-five years) and even for Robel (up to seventeen). 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 twelve people has to buy the argument that this kid didn't quite know what he was doing.

April 16, 2015

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