Dr. Dawg

Roots: the Brothers Tsarnaev

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Let us put in parentheses for a moment the guilt or innocence of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing. Tamerlan is now dead, after a prolonged shoot-out with police; Dzokhar is on the run, and the entire city of Boston is under lockdown while a house-to-house search is conducted.*

Like co-blogger Mandos, I, too, want to talk about the “why.” And why the “why” matters. And also why, whether it matters or not, it may be an unanswerable question. And finally why, when there is no answer, we cannot seem to avoid the temptation to confabulate.

Motive seems to matter very much when we are talking common-or-garden criminals. Determining motive is a staple, in fact, of police procedure. But when we are dealing with terrorist acts of mass-murder, it is suddenly not only unimportant but almost an act of lèse-majesté to bring it up.

That reaction is not really so hard to understand. It’s based upon a suspicion that those who seek for “root causes” are really attempting to absolve the perpetrators rather than to figure out what makes people do that sort of thing. It’s much the same argument that opponents of capital punishment face when we argue (unwisely if we push this too far) for the primacy of social forces over individual moral decisions. We don’t care about the victims, our opponents say. We are trying to explain away vicious acts, make everyone responsible but the murderer, or, even worse, no one responsible.

But the suspicion goes further. Those who look for root causes may actually be in league with the terrorists, suggest the anti-cause folks, but rather than coming right out and saying so, they offer a weak apologetics. The geopolitical narrative is privileged: you’re either with us or with the terrorists. Looking for root causes doesn’t exactly place you with us. Only rage (and due sympathy for the victims of monstrous acts, although that really does seem to fall by the wayside for the right-wing ideologues) is an appropriate response. Never mind analysis: anger is all that is required.

But looking for explanations isn’t excuse-making. To know all, despite the proverb, is not to forgive all. The murder of innocents in a race, in a skyscraper, in a primary school or in a maternity ward, cannot be forgiven. Or excused. Or in any way given a pass. But surely it is reasonable to ask what would drive people to commit such acts, with a view to decreasing the likelihood of such acts in the future. No?

We know that poverty, oppression, hopelessness and despair breed violence. To say so doesn’t excuse the violence. But it does—or it should—offer the possibility of less violence, grosso modo. Yet that doesn’t mean we will easily find solutions, if at all.

Indeed, asking “why” is part of the same narrative-making as conservatives invariably use themselves when they comment on these events. They decry the search for root causes, but go on to offer a tangle of them: it’s Islam, it’s mindless fanaticism, they hate us for our freedoms, and so on, ad nauseam. It’s just that their root causes differ from progressives’ root causes. Or perhaps they just stop at a different level of cause, arguing that the “why” is really a “what.” Muslims just are that way, and Islam is a terrorist religion, invariably, timelessly so, and none of this has anything to do with Palestinians wanting an end to brutal occupation, or drones on borders killing civilians, or the exceptionally bloody and cruel conflict between Chechnya and Russia.

We might dismiss that as wilfully naive, or disingenuous—and so it is. But no ultimate causes in any case can relieve the people who actually commit atrocities of moral responsibility. Marc Lépine selected and murdered women because they were “feminists,” meaning that they were training in a then non-traditional occupation. Clearly there was a context for his insane rage, one that shaped it and gave expression to it. Who but a psychopath, however, could find in that a sufficient justification for his acts?

By the same token, even if we are sympathetic to progressive causes rather than to Lépine’s violent patriarchy, the murderous acts of fanatics cannot in themselves be justified. One might in fact, in our search for root causes, pose the question: do political movements produce sociopaths, or do sociopaths wear convenient political clothing to justify their already-existing urges and proclivities? And to what degree, in the latter case, does a given politics or religion provide an alibi?

We can pose all manner of “whys,” and “hows” as well. And we should. But we should not expect a clear answer to all of them, or necessarily any answer.

Yet it is human to want to explain, to make sense of things. We are producers of narratives. We don’t like to face the possibility that something dreadful can happen for no discernible reason. A woman attacked by a stranger may wonder if it was her fault—not solely because patriarchal ideology may suggest that it was, but because the possibility that it happened to her (rather than someone else) for no reason is something that she cannot face. She needs to make sense of what happened to her, to create a narrative.

Which brings us back to the Tsarnaev brothers. The media is alive with the search for explanations, even as the notion of root causes is decried. Here’s Jonathan Kay, for example, giving us a background in Chechnyan history. Why do you suppose he is doing that? It seems almost that he is interested in a “why” as well as a “who,” doesn’t it? In cause as well as effect?

But note the way that conservative versions of root cause narratives work. Anders Breivik doesn’t stand for Norway, or Timothy McVeigh for America. But every member of a group of Others becomes a culture-bearer for the entire group. A kind of homogenization is in effect. If the Tsarnaevs set off the bombs, they are representatives of a Chechnyan collective identity. The notion of individual Chechens, some peaceful, some psychotic, some hard-working homebodies, some murderous lunatics, and lots in between, vanishes entirely. So much for individual moral responsibility. Kay may not realize it, but he’s offering the brothers the same alibi that progressives are accused of trying to construct.

What if it turns out that the young men were guilty, but planted the bombs for no political reason at all? That they did so just for a thrill, or had no clear idea why they did it?

We progressives who want the “why” as well as the “who” ask more difficult questions than conservatives do. Question-begging responses such as “Because they’re Muslim” or “Because they’re Chechen” won’t serve us as an answer to any of them. But we had better be prepared for the possibility, at least, that there will be no intelligible answers, no roots to be found. Are we ready to look into that abyss?

* This was written a couple of hours before his capture. If he pulls through, what will he tell us? What will we learn?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 19, 2013 7:33 PM.

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