The problem with “root causes”: Attention Justin Trudeau

New Yorker editor David Remnick’s article on the Tsarnaev brothers is a perfect example of how explaining terrorism often morphs into excusing it.

It begins with the facts of life in Chechnya and the Caucuses, pointing out the political and historical factors that have contributed to the rise of terrorism in that part of the world.

But since the Tsarnaevs were among the lucky few able to leave the region and emigrate to the U.S,. by paragraph three, Remnick is already attempting to explain, as he must, why the brothers would have turned to terrorism in the U.S.

In the story of alienation that he crafts, Remnick accepts at face value Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widely circulated quote from a 2010 photo essay that he didn’t have “a single American friend.” But the elder brother  — who is concerned enough with his image to note in the same article that he likes to dress “European style” — did indeed have American friends and girlfriends, one of whom he would soon marry and who may have already been pregnant with his child.

This report and another,  outlining the regular visits Tamerlan made to his American in-laws’ home, were both available online the day before Remnick’s article was published. So too was a Boston Globe story that mentioned Tamerlan’s “best friend,” an American whose throat was sit in a grisly 2011 triple murder.

Thankfully when Remnick turns to Dzhokhar’s story, he shows more skepticism and dismisses the  endless reports of  the scores of friends — more likely than not acquaintances — who can’t believe such a supposedly nice guy turned into a terrorist. Remnick aptly calls their reaction “bland unknowingness.”

Yet when it comes to assessing Dzhokhar’s Twitter feed — including highly troubling tweets made after the bombing — Remnick is just as unknowing. He calls it “a bewildering combination of banality and disaffection,” but this is hardly the right way to describe a bomber who declares to the internet after his crime that there “ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people.” Sociopathic sounds more like it.

Tweets posted by Dzhokar Tsarnaev on the evening after the bombing

What’s more Remnick’s research crew (I assume he didn’t track down the tweets himself) appear to have overlooked (I’ll also assume it was unintentional)  the most notorious post-bombing tweet of them all, the one where the younger Tsarnaev brother writes just hours after the bombing “’god hates dead people?’ Or victims of tragedies? Lol those people are cooked.”

If Remnick had seen this quote or even paid more attention to the ones he did see, it might have upset his favoured root cause explanation for this act of terrorism. Instead of a narrative of immigrant alienation he might have had to consider other posible root causes such as  loserism, love of violence, boredom, an inability to distinguish right from wrong, and legitimization of anti-American hatred and conspiracy theories.

All these appear, however, not to even merit consideration from Remnick who concludes:

The Tsarnaev family had been battered by history before—by empire and the strife of displacement, by exile and emigration. Asylum in a bright new land proved little comfort. When Anzor fell sick, a few years ago, he resolved to return to the Caucasus; he could not imagine dying in America. He had travelled halfway around the world from the harrowed land of his ancestors, but something had drawn him back. The American dream wasn’t for everyone. What they could not anticipate was the abysmal fate of their sons, lives destroyed in a terror of their own making. The digital era allows no asylum from extremism, let alone from the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men. A decade in America already, I want out.

In this all too familiar narrative of American guilt, the line between explaining and excusing is blurred once again. How much clearer it would have been if Remnick ended on another tweet. Lol those people are cooked.

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