Boston, between Columbine and 9/11

President Obama declared that the “hateful agenda” of the Boston bombers will not succeed. But he also warns us not to jump to conclusions. Thus we may ask, what if there was no agenda? What if the Tsarnaev brothers are not ideologically motivated Islamic terrorists but deluded young men, just like the killers of Columbine, Aurora, or Newtown?

It is tempting to conclude that the Boston bombers were motivated by foreign ideologies or politics. We know that they were Chechens, and so were the suicide killers attacking the Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002, and those killing scores of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004. We know they used improvised explosive devices just like those detonating in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. We know that Tamerlan Tsarnaev collected videos under the rubrics “terrorism,” and “Islam.” We know that a foreign government (presumably Russia) had suspected him of terrorist ties. What else then could motivate them but a radical Islamic and anti-American agenda?

But no such agenda is apparent. They did not declare themselves victorious after the attack, denouncing their “enemies,” or celebrating their cause. No religious or political group claimed them. No manifesto was found in their extensive Internet presence.

Startlingly, they tried to go home. As surprising this behavior might be for goal-driven terrorists, it is typical for rampage killers, as the New York Times’s David Brooks wrote in a 2012 column: “The killers generally felt tense before they acted but at peace and in control during the rampage. Some committed suicide when they were done. But a surprising number just gave up. They’d made the statement they wanted to make and hadn’t thought about what came after.” 

The Tsarnaevs’ tweets and social media posts make the brothers appear as aimless young men, failing in their professional and academic lives, fascinated by violent sports, saddled with domestic violence, and confused about their place in American culture and society. Instead of being sleeper cells acting out an Islamic terror agenda, the bombers seem more like the killers of Columbine.

What then would change if there was no agenda motivating them?

The victims of the Boston attacks would lose the solace—if it is any—of being targeted for representing us, our nation, and the values of America. We, as bystanders, would lose the solace of assuming that this violence was perpetrated by others, by foreigners, by Muslims, who are motivated by problems in places far away that have nothing to do with us.

Instead, without such a foreign agenda, the bombings in Boston would be as American as Columbine or Newton. Not a bigger political context but the deluded narcissism of socially unmoored young American men would then lie at the heart of the bombing. Brooks summarizes how the F.B.I. and Secret Service assess these killers: “Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world.”

And here is the danger of imputing an agenda where there is none. What bigger narcissistic rush than to connect one’s own brittle ego with an allegedly higher calling, with that of Islam or anti-American or anti-Russian resistance? By granting these young men (and those fantasizing about the next massacre and manhunt) a connection to the wider world of global politics and religion we mask the purposeless of their actions and gratify their desire for greatness.

Security expert Bruce Schneier claims we should react to political terrorism by refusing to be terrorized. And David Brooks argues that our reaction to rampage killings should be to reject those “who want to use these events to indict whatever they don’t like about society.” Both goals will be served if we resist the temptation to see a religious-political agenda where there is none. The only cause motivating the Tsarnaev brothers was their own broken selves. In this they resemble so many other American young men.