The Brothers Tsarnaev
Four thoughts on Boston’s two apostles of violence.

Tamarlane and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on security-camera footage from April 15, 2013.


In the flood of commentary, four points, so far as I know, have not yet been made.

1. There were erroneous reports, last week, that one of the brothers was educated at Boston Latin, the nursery of Emerson, Santayana, etc. This may explain why some of the early accounts evoked a pair of intellectually gifted young men, somewhat in the mold of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the youthful nihilists who, having been seduced by the Nietzschean idea of “living dangerously,” murdered a boy in Chicago in 1924. 

But the early impressions were wrong. The brothers Tsarnaev, it seems, were not gifted prodigies who took to heart Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary and ended up reenacting Crime and Punishment. Far from resembling the brilliant Bazarov, the nihilist in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons who wants to “smash people,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the brothers, would seem to have been what Hannah Arendt called a “joiner,” a misfit who makes up for his directionless emptiness by embracing a mass cause, in this case militant Islam. Such an individual converts not out of an excess of spiritual intensity or intellectual pride but from ignorance, and comes to his creed less through study and reflection than through happenstance and chance acquaintance. 


2. Much has been made of the brothers’ Chechen heritage, yet it is significant that, in becoming apostles of violence, they showed themselves to be more sympathetic to Salafist jihadism, with its roots in the Arabian peninsula, than to the traditional Sufism of Chechnya, which, perhaps because of its mystic preoccupation with the inner spiritual life, has long been associated with tolerance and accommodation. It is probable, then, that Tamerlan reached the dogmas that led him to terror not through inquiry into his heritage and roots, but through the offices of a zealot of one of the Qutbist or Salafist schools, a charlatan who took advantage of Tamerlan’s very vacuity and gullibility. As I write, there are reports that the FBI is seeking a “sleeper cell” to which the brothers were connected, a development that, if true, makes it even more likely that they were recruited by fanatics.

I would call it the banality of jihad, if the notion of “banality” did not seem to let the killers off the hook. This was the great objection to Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of the banality of Adolf Eichmann  in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her account of Eichmann’s stupidity seemed to diminish not only his monstrousness but even his culpability:

It was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. . . . Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.

The brothers Tsarnaev might, like Eichmann, have been clowns. But evil is not the less monstrous for being low-witted.