Masha Gessen does something unexpected with “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.” In a book about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and their role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, she barely describes the crime. Here it is, her account, which comes almost exactly at the halfway point: “Patriots’ Day 2013 fell on April 15, tax day — an ironic coincidence for a big American holiday. At 2:49 p.m. that day, a couple of hours after the winner completed the Boston Marathon, when runners were crossing the finish line in a steady stream, two bombs went off near the end of the route, killing three people and injuring at least 264 others, including sixteen who lost limbs.”
Still, if such an approach seems counterintuitive, that’s the power of this remarkable book. For Gessen, the details of the catastrophe — the backpacks, the surveillance footage, the suspension of civil liberties throughout Greater Boston for several days — are so well known as to be, in some sense, moot. More essential is the background, both historical and personal. In that sense, “The Brothers” is reminiscent of Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize.
Wright, of course, published his book several years after the fact, while Gessen’s story is unfolding in the Massachusetts courtroom of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial. “The Brothers,” however, is less interested in the case per se than in its context, going back to the 1940s and the relocation by Soviet authorities of ethnic Chechens to the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
What does this have to do with the bombing? Nothing and everything. The Tsarnaev brothers were the children, or grandchildren, of this relocation, which uprooted their father’s family. Nearly 60 years later, when they, with their sisters and parents, came to Boston not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was just one more place that did not want them, that regarded them as alien or worse.
Gessen is smart and nuanced on that upheaval, tracing the effect of the two Chechen wars on a young man such as Tamerlan. Born in Russia, raised in part in Boston (along with her novelist brother Keith), Gessen understands this from the inside; she covered Chechnya as a journalist and her previous books include a biography of Vladimir Putin and an examination of the band Pussy Riot.
She is equally sharp on post-9/11 America, a nation for which “terrorism seemed to come from nowhere and to attack them for no reason.” Gessen deftly relates that war on terror mindset to what the Tsarnaevs experienced in Russia, where a series of bombings in 1999 ratcheted up anti-Chechen sentiment. She explains: “Chechen men throughout Russia were rounded up. Chechen children were hounded out of school. Chechen families were chased out of their homes. The war in Dagestan started. What was now happening in the United States did not look very different: there were the witch hunts, and there was the punitive war in a faraway abstraction of a land.”
For the Tsarnaevs — a Muslim family from a war-torn republic — the timing “was as bad as it had ever been: they landed in American precisely at the moment when they and their kind were seen as most suspect.”
This is not to say that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar decided to bomb the marathon because they felt disenfranchized. Indeed, Gessen tells us, “What is truly lacking from the story is a clear and accessible explanation for how two young men who appear to be very much like hundreds of thousands of other young men came to cause carnage in the center of their own city.” At the same time, she means to question the prevailing narrative of the attack, which focused on how Tamerlan was radicalized, and how he radicalized Dzhokhar.
Instead, Gessen argues convincingly that no situation stands alone. Rather than the story of two lone-wolf jihadists, determined to wage war on their adopted country, the marathon bombing becomes a saga of both the Tsarnaev family and contemporary U.S. culture, in which all too often terror provokes an unreasonable response.
Take Dzhokhar’s college friends, three of whom were prosecuted for obstruction of justice after removing a laptop and a backpack containing Vaseline and used fireworks from his dorm room. Gessen doesn’t sugarcoat: “I think he used these to make the bombs,” one says to another about the find.
At the same time, she traces the confusion of these 19-year-olds, unsure of their loyalties, in over their heads. “Dias [Kadyrbayev] may have known that these objects could be the remnants of making a bomb,” she observes, “but all of them were of this reality, not of the fantastical, otherworldly, disastrous realm of the carnage on television.”
The point is not to make excuses — although Gessen refutes any claim of evidentiary value to the backpack — but in tracing the reaction (two of these young men now face up to 25 years in prison), she indicts law enforcement for its outsized zealousness.
For Gessen, the issue is not guilt or innocence; “This book is not an impartial jury,” she writes. “Like the American public, it assumes from the start that Tamerlan and [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev are the Boston Marathon bombers.” More essential is what the Tsarnaevs and their story tells us about who we have become. That she makes the case with grace and passion, while also basing it on rigorous reporting, is the triumph of the book.
This is not a popular perspective; it asks us to wrestle with ambiguities that we might prefer to leave alone. But it also deepens the tragedy of the bombing by framing its perpetrators not as monsters but as human beings.
“As for the brothers …,” Gessen argues, “theirs remains a small story, in which nothing extraordinary happens — or, rather, no extraordinary event is necessary to explain what happened. One had only to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many people are, to never feel that one belongs, to see every opportunity, even those that seem within reach, pass one by — until the opportunity to be somebody finally, almost accidentally, presents itself.”
The Road to an American Tragedy
Riverhead: 272 pp., $27.95