Refugee Trauma and the Boston Terrorists

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.