Opinion
Join The Times' book club. This month's selection: "Cadillac Desert"
Opinion Top of the Ticket

Why did the suspected Boston bomber pivot from benign to brutal?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombing, is the baffling mystery man in this crime.

His older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police in the dark early hours Friday morning, better fits the stereotype of a disaffected, nascent terrorist.

He was nearing adulthood when he came to this country from Russia’s predominantly Muslim central Asian region. He talked of having no American friends. He had openly disdained the immorality of American society and adopted a zealous brand of Islam. He had left school and was in a troubled marriage.

On social media, he had connected to sites touting extremist Muslim ideology. He had traveled back to Chechnya and Dagestan, where he conceivably could have met with and been trained by terrorist groups. The Russians had asked American authorities to check him out, prompting the FBI to question Tamerlan and his family in 2011. 

It’s not hard to concoct a scenario for Tamerlan that ends with a bombing. But Dzokhar?

Seven years younger than Tamerlan, Dzokhar came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old. Recently, he became a citizen. In between, he lived a relatively normal American life.

He was a successful student and competed on his high school wrestling team. He had many friends. Those friends say he was upbeat, always smiling. He was enrolled at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He lived in a dorm. He went to parties. He worked out at the gym.

To one teacher, he did express an interest in the troubled history of his distant family homeland, but he seems to have been happy living a well-adjusted American life.

How could Dzokhar have pivoted from that to the vicious act of which he is accused?

It is good that police were able to apprehend him alive. If and when he recovers from his serious wounds, Dzokhar may be able to enlighten us about his apparent turn to heartless violence. In the meantime, there will be plenty of speculation. 

Conspiracy theorists will imagine that he is some sort of sleeper agent for Muslim terror groups; that his sunny demeanor concealed a sinister, coldblooded intent. It could be true, but I suspect the reality is much simpler.

Dzokhar is 19 years old, an age when many young men act on impulse and sudden passions. It is the age when boys trying to prove their manhood are easy to recruit. It may be to the military, it may be to religion, it may be to the brotherhood of a hard-drinking fraternity or it may be to a cause that promises them the chance to change the world.

Perhaps, most of all, it is an age when someone older with a firm vision of life can have an inordinate influence. It may be a professor, a drill sergeant, a religious figure -- or an older brother.

When we finally learn the truth about this alleged bomber, the shock may not be that he is so sinister or so consumed by a cause. The shock may be how easily this young man -- like many young men -- could be swayed from the light to the most brutal darkness.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Cowardly Senate runs away from gun background checks

    Cowardly Senate runs away from gun background checks

    Polls indicate that 80% to 90% of Americans support expanded background checks for firearms sales, but on Wednesday such a plan could not get 60 votes in the United States Senate. In the White House Rose Garden, surrounded by families of children gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President...

  • Boston Marathon bombing proves evil never leaves us in peace

    Boston Marathon bombing proves evil never leaves us in peace

    The terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon is yet another cause for despair. It places the hometown of Paul Revere, Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty in company with Mumbai, Karachi and Baghdad, as well as Oklahoma City.

  • Getting the blues from trying to watch Dodgers on Time Warner Cable

    Getting the blues from trying to watch Dodgers on Time Warner Cable

    My wife gave me Time Warner Cable as a retirement present so I could spend my golden years watching the Boys in Blue on TV. This makes me a lucky guy because 70% of Southern California doesn't get to watch the Dodgers on TV, at least until Charter Communications fulfills its promises. But nothing...

  • 'Strange' vs. 'simple old American' names

    'Strange' vs. 'simple old American' names

    Inflammatory Internet comments don't usually become news stories unto themselves. But a Duke University professor recently pulled off that trick. In response to a New York Times editorial about racism in Baltimore, Jerry Hough wrote that African Americans "just feel sorry for themselves" and compared...

  • Who's to blame when fake science gets published?

    Who's to blame when fake science gets published?

    The now-discredited study got headlines because it offered hope. It seemed to prove that our sense of empathy, our basic humanity, could overcome prejudice and bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences. It was heartwarming, and it was utter bunkum. The good news is that this particular case of...

  • L.A. Unified embarrassed again by its act-fast habit

    L.A. Unified embarrassed again by its act-fast habit

    It's all too typical at the Los Angeles Unified School District: Leaders want to make a change to help the district's students, but instead of investigating costs, options and whether the change is even achievable or desirable, the board forges ahead. Only after it has committed itself do the very...

Comments
Loading