Dead and Homeless

Weeks after his death, Boston Marathon Bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s corpse is still homeless. Where will he end up?

SYNDICATED COLUMN: If We Learn Geography, the Terrorists Have Won

When You Ask “Why?,” Mean It.


Why would anybody want to kill innocent people?

That’s what Americans — led by the media reporters and pundits who set the agenda for discussion — ask after every terrorist attack, particularly those carried out by foreigners.

Our mystified national cluelessness begs the question. Why do people blow up our embassies, bomb our ships, fly planes into our buildings, (try to) blow up their shoes and their underwear? They do it (partly) because we can’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing.

Studies, particularly the ones the media trots out at times like these, point to a number of factors. Some of these may help trigger the kind of violent “self-radicalization” that initial reports indicate may have led Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Kyrgyzstani brothers of Chechen descent, to detonate a pair of bombs at the Boston Marathon last week.

Was it psychological alienation? “I don’t have a single American friend,” Tamerlan, 26, supposedly the instigator of the attack, said. A traumatic event, like a job loss or the break-up of a romantic relationship? Some studies find that some self-radicalized (as opposed to those who are recruited into an organization) terrorists are made after they suffer a disappointment that sets them off, causing a person with political rage to graduate to violent direct action. After the Fort Hood shooting, the Pentagon concluded that substance abuse, post-traumatic stress syndrome or brain injuries sustained in an IED blast could be triggers. Some even blame the involvement of Dzhokhar, 19 and suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, on reports that he was a pothead.

But hey, one could just as easily ask what drove state terrorist Barack Obama to murder thousands of innocent people with killer drones. Was the president sad after failing to win a second Nobel Prize? Did Michelle stop putting out? Did cocaine and/or marijuana scramble his right temporo-parietal junction, the part of the brain that controls the moral judgments of human beings? It’s pretty safe to say we’ll never be able to point to one, or two, or 17 discrete factors as the “causes” for the conscious choice to kill another person.

Like the drone war, the Boston Marathon bombings were a political act.

At this point, my best guess is that this was an attempt to strike back at the U.S. in its post-9/11 “great war of civilizations,” or Christian “crusade,” as George W. Bush called it. Authorities who questioned Dzhokhar in his hospital bed say that he and Tamerlan wanted to defend Islam from attack.

You can argue that the Tsarnaev brothers’ politics were wrong. That their tactics were counterproductive. That they were just “losers,” as their uncle called them. But we can’t understand why unless we dig into those politics.

Which is something that, 12 years after 9/11, the American media still refuses to do. Which increases the odds of future attacks.

Terrorism is not prima facie the act of a nut. Serial killers don’t detonate bombs. Terrorists don’t terrorize for fun.

“Terrorism [as opposed to state terrorism, like the drone wars] is the tool of the weak, used by disaffected groups or minorities to oppose the rule and (as they see it) the oppression of an established and militarily superior power,” Mark Nicholson wrote. “Because it is resistance on the cheap, terrorism often emerges out of civil society rather than state sponsorship, because oppressed civilian groups, lacking control over governmental machinery, can summon little or no regular military force able to confront their ‘oppressor’ in conventional military terms.”

We like terrorists. Some of them, anyway. During World War II German occupation forces characterized the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto uprising as “terrorists.” We view these doomed Jews, who fought to the death, as noble. The Afghan mujahedeen who struggled against the Soviets during the 1980s were terrorists to the USSR, “freedom fighters” to Ronald Reagan. The French Resistance assassinated public officials and robbed banks and bombed trains, and we love ’em for it. In movies like “Red Dawn,” we cheer the patriotic American “terrorists” who wage guerilla warfare against the invaders.

This, of course, is how radical Islamists see themselves: as heroic fighters in a resistance movement against a rapacious, cruel oppressor. (And if they prevail, that’s how history will read.) They’re not psychotic. They’re principled, willing to sacrifice everything for their cause.

Since 9/11 our leaders have repeatedly told us that “they” “hate our freedoms,” but of course this is nonsense. As Osama bin Laden remarked, if the Islamists resented liberal societies, if they wanted the world’s women all under burqas, Amsterdam would have been blown to bits. “We only killed Russians after they invaded Afghanistan and Chechnya, we only killed Europeans after they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq,” bin Laden wrote in 2004.

To ask why Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did what they did (if indeed they did it), to research their political motivations with an open mind, without dismissing them as random (friendless, stoned, loser) crazies, does not legitimize their tactics.

Self-styled Islamist resistance organizations like Al Qaeda haven’t garnered widespread support because terrorism against civilians is counterproductive. As Ché Guevara wrote, “terrorism [is] a measure that is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people and destroys a large number of lives that would be valuable to the revolution.”

However, as Ché continued, terrorism directed against government or military officials can be legitimate: “Terrorism should be considered a valuable tactic when it is used to put to death some noted leader of the oppressing forces well known for his cruelty, his efficiency in repression, or other quality that makes his elimination useful.” After 9/11, for example, even some Americans viewed the Pentagon as a legitimate military target. Conversely, arguments that the World Trade Center, as a hub of a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire,” was an acceptable target, were rejected. The WTC victims enjoy an exalted sainthood in popular culture; grief over the Pentagon victims has always been relatively muted.

No would-be revolutionary who knows history would have targeted a civilian target like the Boston Marathon.

So, let’s agree that the brothers’ tactics sucked. That what they did was evil. But what of their political motivations?

One would have to be blind not to understand why Muslims are enraged at the U.S.: Gitmo, drones, propping up dictators, Palestine, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, Iraq, the list goes on and on…and yes, Chechnya — where the Russians slaughtered thousands of innocents while their American allies silently cheered them on.

But few of us know about that. Because our media didn’t report it.

Which gets us back to:

Why’d the Boston bombers do it?

To get us to pay attention.

So we’ll force “our” government to stop what they’re doing in Muslim countries.

But that’ll never happen until we know “we’re” doing.

(Ted Rall’s website is His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


The Chechen Connection

Beginning in the mid-1990s under the regime of President Boris Yeltsin and continuing into the early part of the 2000s under Vladimir Putin, Russia fought a so-called “dirty war” against Chechen separatists in a region of the world that military strategists have long considered among the most indomitable. Even in Afghanistan, where many Chechen fighters went to train in Taliban run training camps, they had a reputation for ferocity that frightened many war-hardened Afghans.

As the younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is the surviving suspect in the Boston marathon bombings six days ago remained silent and in serious condition in a Boston hospital, and apparently did not issue any public statement about motives, it is impossible to say why – if indeed it was him and his brother – they did it. So what follows is speculation.

We know that older brother Tamerlan – the name of the famous 15th century Central Asian conqueror – visited relatives in Chechnya for about six months in 2012, according to his father, in order to renew his Russian passport. Authorities are currently investigating the possibility that he connected with radical separatist groups during his visit. He posted videos by radical jihadi figures to YouTube when he returned.

Why might a Chechen resent the United States? After all, Russia – not the United States – blasted the capital city of Grozny into smithereens and made countless Chechens vanish into thin air, an act of ethnic cleansing similar to Kosovo. In fact, most Chechen resistance groups focus their rage – and terror attacks – against Moscow and other Russian cities.

Some Chechens charge the United States with a conspiracy of silence with Russia, which they see as an American ally. It is a credible charge. After all, the United States has maintained a close security relationship between the CIA and the successor to the KGB, the FSB, since 1994. That’s why, for example, Tamerlan’s trip to Russia aroused a query from the Russians to their counterparts in the American government.

If you think back to the Carter administration, which made human rights a top priority (albeit inconsistently), there was a time when political dissidents might be able to expect – not in all situations, but often – the US to decry human rights violations such as those that occurred in Chechnya in the late 1990s. Under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, however, US policy was to refuse to comment or to issue low-profile denunciations that escaped the notice of the media. In the same way that so many governments failed to step up and help Jews escape Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, to do nothing (or very little) is to tacitly enable murderers. Silence equals consent.

Now scroll forward to 2013. The United States, which had nothing to say about Russian policy in Chechnya, is engaged in an epic clash of civilizations against Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. (Just yesterday, an American terror drone killed two people in the Obama Administration’s extrajudicial campaign of slaughter of Yemenis.) It’s not a big stretch to imagine the suspects in the Boston marathon bombings thinking that the reason that the United States doesn’t care about what happened to their homeland is that it’s all part of the same policy, that the US and Russia are on the same side, that these two countries are more friends than enemies, Western powers who are trying to destroy Islam.

So why blow up the marathon? If you’re in Boston, you go with the targets that you have. That’s where you live. Why blow up innocents? Because you can’t get at those who were truly responsible, the policymakers in Washington and Moscow. And anyway, you tell yourselves, Americans aren’t really innocent. This is a democracy. We’re responsible for our government. We vote for our leaders. We should rise up and overthrow them if we don’t like them; otherwise, we’re responsible for them. This notion of “collective guilt,” after all, is how the Allies during World War II justified targeting civilians with bombing raids. Osama bin Laden made analogous claims that Americans deserved to be targeted because of their collective guilt.

Ultimately, you wage attacks in order to get attention for a cause that has been ignored. To get the issues you care about discussed and talked about. That’s the purpose of terrorism. Terrorism is the tool of the weak and oppressed against the strong and powerful. It’s asymmetric warfare.

While it will always be impossible to stop terrorism, it’s a fallacy to argue that we can’t reduce its frequency and the likelihood of American targets being attacked again, that we’ll always be targeted no matter what. It just isn’t true. Luxembourg doesn’t have a lot of terrorist bombings. Neither does Belgium – but it would if it still had its big colonial empire. If you don’t invade other countries, if you don’t engage in aggressive foreign policy, if you’re not financing and arming oppressive regimes, you tend not to piss people off.

One could argue that we shouldn’t give in to terrorists by changing our policies. But if our policies are brutal and counterproductive to begin with, it’s a discussion that we should be having.

Right now, to watch the news and watch the so-called experts talk about Boston, it’s pretty clear that they don’t get it. Skirting the issue, they talk about the psychological component, that the two brothers from Chechnya were to some extent alienated from American society. They talk about the success of law enforcement. They talk about privacy and cameras. The Republicans are even talking about this as an excuse not to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants.

But all of these issues are beside the point. The only surprise about Monday’s attack is that such horrific events are so few and far between.