On Boston and the Caucasus

From left, Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in happier times; Mikhail Vrubel, Head of the Demon, detail, 1890.

From left, Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in happier times; Mikhail Vrubel, Head of the Demon, detail, 1890.

The events in Boston have been weighing on me to the point that it feels dirty and cheap and like a betrayal to Instagram or brunch or online shop or do any of the things we usually do to take our minds of off reality. Kardashians notwithstanding, there’s another reason that they’ve stayed with me longer than any other headline making its way through the media shitstorm.

On one hand, it’s fair to say that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were a product of the American way, to intentionally misquote Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov (dig that photo). On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the collective memory of the Caucasus, which is as prideful and persistent as the people to whom it belongs. What this amounts to is a sense of cultural ennui and anomie layered over a tradition of separatism. The suspects’ uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, was onto something when he implied that their actions were motivated not by Islam but by feelings of impotence and inadequacy misdirected into a needless and (self-) destructive Jihad. As Luke O’Neil writes, when a villain emerges in the public eye, the difficult part isn’t condemning him as inhuman but reconciling his mundane expressions of humanity. Only one of these things requires real empathy even as every nation’s politico-media complex banks on the scope of such emotions being limited only to those whose identity squares with your own.

In other words, what all politicians and pundits (i.e. students of human nature) know to be true is that people are averse to feeling uncomfortable and uncanny feelings, like the kind brought on by perusing the younger Tsarnaev’s social media presence only to realize that he must have been human after all. One reason he hasn’t been vilified quite as thoroughly as 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta or the American Taliban John Walker Lindh or movie theater shooter James Holmes or, for that matter, his older brother, is that we see in his face the vulnerability and equivocation of a boy on the verge of manhood. In pictures, he seems cute and intellectual, in short, almost endearing. There’s no crazy in his eyes. If narrative is necessary for closure, it’s easy to imagine him as the one who went along with it because the other was his sibling.

Of course, the whole situation is so horrifying and sad precisely because nobody wins—not the victims (whose lives are irretrievably changed for the worse), not the perpetrators (who once had potential but now are doomed), not the families (who will suffer on their behalf), not the Chechens or the Americans. Perhaps the only ones who stand to gain from it are the Russians, who can use this opportunity to drum up anti-Chechen sentiment among the populace. It may be true that America itself is largely to blame for creating the conditions for terrorist acts to occur on its soil, but those who suffer are never the ones who should. Among the dead are an eight-year-old boy and a Chinese graduate student, innocents who had nothing to do with anything but are now paying for the misdeeds of nefarious politicians pursuing a foreign policy of destabilization abroad and the erosion of civil liberties at home. 

But for those of us who are Americans from the Caucasus, there is an added element of mourning that comes from the realization that these kids are too familiar, too close to home, that we are capable of relating to their appearance, their mannerisms, their sense of humor, their experience, their traumatic and fragmented immigrant upbringing, even as we consciously disavow their crimes. Realizing this about yourself makes you instantly aware of the visceral loyalty we all reserve for members of our own “tribe.” It’s true that we Caucasians are particularly tight-knit, in part because there are so few of us, in part because we’re used to being pushed around. As a Caucasian, you can’t help being thrilled by those of us who withstood their own oppression against all odds. Feats of daring, a code of honor, an intuition for the terrain—these are all Caucasian things, things of the agile and adaptable highlander, things to be proud of, that have carried over to Boston of all places, with consequences that are nothing if not shameful.

You could say that, for us, it feels like betrayal of our kind, the idea that given our shared experience of destabilization and maladjustment, we would expect them to have more insight and foresight into the way the world works. To have more clarity and agency. To recognize the contradiction of comprehending global human suffering yet privileging the existence of a God that favors you. Yes, that’s probably the heart of it. And it’s probably too much to expect, from a nineteen-year-old at least. Now, things are starting to fall into place: a pushover father who retreated from his responsibilities to offspring he couldn’t understand, an aggressive and provocative mother who receded into religion as a way of mitigating her own lack of control, inciting the household but not anticipating the fallout, an angry son who’s private ego wound became a public war, taking his sibling down with him, an estranged extended family who wanted nothing to do with this pack of crazies, and through mere indifference, made it known. It’s clear that an entire system of authority conspired to fail these kids. To paraphrase Tsarni again, in Caucasian culture, older children take care of younger ones, but that chain of duty had come undone long ago.

What combination of vectors aligned to create this catastrophic matrix? And what if removing one or two from the equation meant that the crisis could have been averted? Of course, things are never that cut and dry, which is why trying to make sense of it all for your own sake is a pointless endeavor. If, as Alberto Moravia once wrote, suicide was an act of spite, a retaliation in that order, but not against the infidels, as some people may claim for their own personal gain, but, against this system of indifference.

This is the horror of context—what the American media is paid to conceal and American citizens avoid learning at all costs lest it undermine their moral alibi for looking the other way when the government deploys drones to an Afghan wedding and denies responsibility for the rise of birth defects and rare cancers in Fallujah, Basra and other Iraqi cities exposed to toxic and radioactive agents during the occupation citing—surprise!—a lack of evidence. Not to mention, persists in the propagandistic vilification of yet another sovereign nation which has failed to yield to its interests simply in protecting its own, Iran. It’s also the reason why choosing not to remain ignorant (i.e. reading Lermontov and Tolstoy, i.e. becoming well-versed in basic human psychology) isn’t an exercise in futility but a matter of necessity. As Craig Steven Wilder puts it in Ken Burns’s documentary on the Central Park Five, “I think that virtually every ethnic and racial group in New York has these moments where your heart just stops and your stomach turns and you think to yourself, ‘Please don’t let it be us.'” What I’m suggesting isn’t that we sympathize with terrorists but that we learn to mourn all victims equally, even if they happen to be the Other. That means copping to the fact that the primitive instinct for self-identification through self-segregation is universal.


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