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Refugee Trauma and the Boston Terrorists

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.