Following the past week’s marathon of terror in Boston, the news is full of articles trying to explain the Tsarnaev brothers. What would motivate two young men, granted asylum by America, to answer that welcome by assaulting a crowd with bombs packed with nails and ball bearings, with maiming and murder?
Given the Chechen origins of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the search for answers has quite reasonably entailed a crash course in the history of Chechnya. The terrorism in Boston was clearly a case of jihad, and Chechnya over the past generation has become a jihadi hub; though plenty of details have yet to be discovered about the precise path that took the Tsarnaev brothers from emigre boys to terror suspects — one now dead and the other in custody after a manhunt that shut down all of Boston.
But creeping into this discussion is another line of analysis, of which we should be very wary. That would be the suggestion that the terror in Boston was the product not only of radical Islam, but more broadly a result of the agonies suffered over generations by the Chechens. For instance, in a meditative article on the two brothers, The New Yorker’s David Remnick writes, “The Tsarnaev family had been battered by history before — by empire and the strife of displacement, by exile and emigration. Asylum in a bright new land proved little comfort.”
Remnick is quite right that the Chechens have endured a long history of hell. The conquest of Chechnya by Czarist Russia in the 18th century translated into the brutalities of Soviet rule in the 20th century. During World War II, to prevent the Chechens from collaborating with the Nazis against the Soviet Union, Stalin deported the entire Chechen population in cattle cars to Central Asia. Many died. When the survivors began returning to Chechnya, in the late 1950s and 1960s, many found ethnic Russians living in their homes.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, Chechnya declared independence. Russian President Boris Yeltsin said no, and responded in late 1994 by sending in the biggest strike force since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, I was working for the Wall Street Journal in Moscow, and went down to the Caucasus to cover that war. It was horrific; the Chechen capital of Grozny was largely reduced to rubble. About that same time, jihadis and their financiers began arriving from the Middle East, and what had been primarily a Chechen campaign to escape Russian rule became increasingly tied to fundamentalist Islam, amid a second round of war, and refugee flows that spilled over into the neighboring Russian republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan (where the father of the Tsarnaev brothers is now living, having returned there after gaining asylum in America). These events were traumatic, and quite likely made a ferocious impression on the Tsarnaev brothers — young though they were when they left the Caucasus for America, more than a decade ago.
But do the shocks of war and displacement –however traumatic — really explain why immigrants would turn to terror, and bring bombs to the Boston Marathon?
America has a long history of welcoming refugees, from a great many places, who have been through events at least as traumatic. Among them are survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, of the North Vietnamese conquest of the South, of the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, of the miseries of Haiti, and of the prisons of such countries as China or Cuba. Whatever the difficulties they might have found in adapting to life in America — or life in general — many have made good use of the freedom and opportunities America ensures. None of these refugees have turned to such projects as terrorist attacks; none have waded into a festive crowd to spread wanton agony by planting bombs built to kill or blow the legs off whoever happened to be there at the time.
There’s an argument to be made that the miseries of the Chechens created an opening for the lure of jihad. But the record suggests that such traumas as a history of war and exile do not by themselves lead refugees living in America to plot or commit terrorism. It is when jihad enters the picture that the bombs go off.