One year ago, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. After an intense manhunt, one of the perpetrators, Tamerlan, was killed and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was arrested. Their motives have since been carefully scrutinized, particularly their psychological ones.
In Tamerlan’s case, The Boston Globe reported that he heard voices and that the family decided to deal with the issue using religion rather than therapy. These voices gradually took a more radical turn.
This approach has its limitations. It cannot explain why in the vast majority of cases, mass killings are carried out by young men of sound mind — like his brother Dzhokhar.
Rather than focus on individual characteristics to determine the social factors at play, we should make comparisons with similar events, such as school shootings.
First of all, perpetrators forewarn these tragedies by hinting at their morbid intentions through veiled threats and other forms of bravado. For instance, Tamerlan used Facebook to support the jihad against America, whom he accused of waging war on Islam.
These threats are often declared to peer groups to demonstrate value and obtain recognition. Since the threats are usually not taken seriously, they are escalated and — in rare cases — carried out to maintain credibility. The more the perpetrators’ world is homogeneous, the more being rejected by it will acquire a significance that realistically makes no sense.
Integration was very difficult for the Tsarnaev family. Their father, Ansor, strongly hoped that his eldest son would represent the United States in Olympic boxing. His hopes were dashed when the latter did not make it to the 2009 Massachusetts state championship. For Tamerlan, this failure was significant not only because he was rejected by his host country but because he was a failure in the eyes of his family.
In the face of such failures, future killers try to find an alternative way to receive recognition, often looking beyond societal norms. Those who take action look for ways to show that they reject normalcy. They are inspired by models in popular culture: men who stand up to evil and use violence to seek vengeance and thus transform society.
These men’s self-worth comes from their refusal to make any compromise about their pure values. In this regard, the Tsarnaev brothers were inspired by both Hollywood and jihad culture; they changed their behavior gradually as the eldest discovered the Quran, which gave him a cause that surpassed his status.
Although they are often depressed, suicide is not an option for future killers — it would not change their social status. Instead they look to what is called “suicide by cop,” a Hollywood scenario where the police always kill the killers. This glorious end would establish their reputation in a single performance, which is easier than conforming to the standards of a society that rejected them. When Tamerlan threw himself at police during a confrontation, he was clearly thinking of his own death.
The choice of target was also significant. The killers sought a place or an event that symbolized the society that rejected them. The Boston Marathon, the United States’ oldest marathon, is held on Patriots’ Day — a time when athletes deliver their performances, families gather, flags are abundant and cameras are everywhere. This is the platform the Tsarnaev brothers chose to show their rejection of American societal norms. From this perspective, this tragedy stems from failed integration having grown to gigantic proportions within an isolated universe.