What made two young American boys build two pressure cooker bombs that killed and injured hundreds of their fellow citizens at a community marathon?
This is the question that Masha Gessen seeks to answer in her new and provocative book The Tsarnaev Brothers. One of its central themes is dislocation—cultural, ethnic and emotional. The book opens in Makhachkala, the capital of the Russian province of Dagestan, a place so miserable it looks to neighbouring Chechnya as a source of sophistication. (It boasts a “Russian Orthodox church,” writes Gessen, “and, directly across the street, one abortion clinic.”)
This is the birthplace of Zubeidat, the mother of the Boston bombers, Tamerlan, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and perhaps the most important influence on their descent into radicalism. It is also the beginnings of a classic tale of immigrant wandering that ends ultimately in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the implosion of the American dream into bloody violence. And in this lies the book’s most chilling lesson: the extreme ordinariness of this descent. No theological revelations took place; no shadowy figures radicalised the brothers. They just dropped out of life and got on the internet. There they discovered, and decided to swallow, the basest forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, which led them to do what they did. So how do you stop something similar happening again? The clear implication, and what makes the book so disconcerting, is that it is almost impossible.