Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fascinating Globe Piece on the Tsarnaevs This Morning

Hm, something weird seems to have happened to the blog editor--not me, the mechanical one--and this appeared and disappeared on its own. Let me repost.

I've pretty much given up on the Globe since it was bought by the Times, ruined, and then dumped. But this 5 part piece on the Boston Bombers is pretty interesting and well done--although it leads to more questions than it answers in terms of the police response.  Basically the argument of the articles is that the Tsarnaevs were poor, failed, dysfunctional, caught between multiple worlds and failures in each, and that all these things--the familial, the medical, the emotional, the marital, the economic caught the brothers up into a storm of spite and anomie until blowing up a bunch of strangers, at the behest of a bunch of strangers and to make a name for themselves,  seemed like a good idea.  The articles compare the brothers to other infamous American killers like the Columbine Killers, the Aurora Killer and of course they are to be compared to the guy who shot Gabby Giffords and, I'd argue, Leopold and Loeb.   In other words: quintessentially American.

I was surprised to find that the thing that still rankles people out there in the wide world, and even within the Boston Area, is the city wide shutdown during the manhunt.  I live within shouting distance of where a lot of the manhunt occurred and my children transit into Boston every day passing within feet of the bombings.  I don't understand why so many people seem to see the voluntary "shelter in place" request as the thin end of the wedge of the police state.  It seemed like literally the least the city and surrounding cities might want to do before they knew the scope of the plot.  The current revelation, which is that these two were sad sack losers and potentially merely an untreated schizophrenic and his accomplice, doesn't really change the issue back then which included the obvious possibility that they had planted more bombs in more locations and/or had more confederates.  Given the incompetence of the police and the SWAT teams involved--I believe the horrific injury sustained by the MTA  police officer was, in the end, caused by friendly fire--and the likelihood that civilians would be caught in the crossfire asking people to shelter in place seems like the sensible thing to do when massive teams of paramilitary and police units are attempting a dragnet.  I didn't feel like the city was cowardly, or giving in to fear, so much as it was pragmatically attempting to isolate the bombers from their friends and potential allies.

The part of the story which has dissapeared down the memory hole of the complaisant population in our  paranoid, security, state is the shooting death of the "friend" by the FBI.  I was astounded by the number of men on blogs who were upset at the closing down of the city, but who didn't bat an eye that the FBI went to interview a prime suspect and conducted the interview in such a way that they wound up killing him and thus losing any chance of ascertaining what he did or did not know.  You have no idea how many people began blathering hysterically about how dangerous "mixed martial arts trained men are" as though life were a Jean Claude Van Damme movie and arguing that the interrogators had to "first, protect themselves."

In any event if you read the Boston Globe story you will see not so much the story of an international Islamic conspiracy but the straight up, rather familiar tale, of immigrant failure.  Far from being about Islamic heritage, or teachings, it demonstrates how very imaginary, fragile, and cobbled together most people's cultural ties are--the Tsarnaevs rediscovered a fantasy, modern, patchwork of Islam no more traditional or reflective of their Chechen heritage or their personal reality than the Islam of the Nation of Islam is Islamic.  The parents picked up and dropped pieces of this dimly remembered and understood mish-mosh of culture and religion as the American dream receded from their grasp.  The thing that stood out for me in the Globe article was the role of disappointment, failure, illness and family dysfunction in shaping the despair that ultimately drove the parents apart, and the boys into terrorism.

There was nothing in the Tsarnaev story, right down to the see-sawing between tradition and modernity, between the parent's dreams and the children's imagined capabilities, that we haven't seen in every immigrant story to this country.  In fact it reminded me strongly of the beginning of Angela's Ashes.  The miserable father, the weeping mother, the horrors of the old life, the scary failures of the new.

 The father and mother were fixated on choosing a path for their sons that would lead to financial and social success, and on forcing their daughters into a more traditional box as simply married, muslim, working class girls.  They picked boxing (sport) for the older boy and school for the younger one and were agressive and harsh with the older one in training him and hands off and uncomprehending of the struggles of the younger one.  Typical of authoritarian households both the boys were raised with an inconsistent mixture of abuse and adulation, criticism and smothering love.  Both the girls were neglected until they ended up economically and educationally at the bottom of the heap as teenage mothers abandoned by abusive and criminal husbands.  The story of the entire family doesn't really read any differently than it would if they were they were first generation Irish, or Italian, or if they were the first family to come out of a hardscrabble Appalachian white background to the factories up North.

There's a diary up at Kos this morning about the death of a 16 year cross racial friendship between a black man and a white man who come from the same state, attended the same college, worked in the same field, and who were quite close before the economic recession and the election of Barack Obama. In many ways except that we think we already understand this conflict because of the race differential this story is really close to that told by Johar Tsarnaev's friends now that they know how his story turned out.  You have people who were jogging along, functioning, but who were slowly falling behind and seeking explanations for it in wider social trends--and seeking to push back on their despair by aligning themselves with something larger and more important and perduring than their own suffering. Here's what the diarist has to say:

As the great recession lingered, Adam became unemployed for a long time and felt significant angst about his place in the world and ability to sustain himself. He increasingly blamed Pres. Obama for not fixing the economy fast enough.  Meanwhile I was forced to completely abandon my media consulting small business in order to run back to a corporate 9-5 job when my client base dried up.
But instead of blaming Pres. Obama I blamed his predecessor Pres. George W. Bush along with the Republican led filibustering within the US Senate which blocked crucial jobs bills which would have grown the economy faster.  So our initial online clashes were over who really was to blame for our forced and dramatic career changes and life shifting situations.
By 2012 Adam was unabashedly lifting talking points from far right leaning FOX News network and spewing them across his Facebook feed without an ounce of criticism towards his own Republican party for its constant obstructionism, filibustering of key legislation and judicial nominations along with its gerrymandering of voting districts to seize control of the House of Representatives. He never addressed the conservative led 36 state Voter-ID “suppression” efforts which sought to reduce early voting, the number of hours to vote, plus stopped voter registration drives and blocked students at private historically black colleges and other universities from voting in the states where they attended school.
We soon became caricatures or perhaps archetypes of Facebook.  He was now a reliably grouchy Republican poster child stating how he wanted his country as he posted a picture of how red America’s voting districts really were but how we have a Democratic President and controlled Senate.  And I would fly in on his Facebook posts like a true blue Liberal Superman countering that much of the red on his voting map represented land based districts and NOT people filled districts not to mention the epic 2010 republican gerrymandered districts on federal and state levels.
He soon started to attack immigrants and specifically Latinos when he posted how it felt being a white minority living in certain parts of Los Angeles and seeking out other white people.   But then it really got ugly!!
In another post he tried to bash current day immigrants stating how his family migrated to America several generations ago and became productive citizens and that he demanded better from others in “my” country today.
I angrily countered that my family had been in this country far longer than his since my descendants came on the slave ship Clotilde which docked in Mobile, AL in 1859.   I informed him that Blacks have been in America since the 1600s in Jamestown, VA as slaves and that America really wasn’t “his” country but that he and his family were the true immigrants in America.
In another Facebook rant Adam went after the poor chastising them for having too many children and for being on welfare, forgetting that he too was unemployed for a very long time and needed assistance. He also went after a women’s right-to-choose and gays with same-sex marriage stating there were far more important issues to tackle.
True to red-state formation, Adam embraced only fiscal issues, rejected social justice topics and the hyphenation of America and instead longed for an era in which white straight men ruled America; an era which Adam never lived however generations later he unknowingly reaped the benefits of it through his white privilege.
Similarly I never lived in an era where blacks were captive to slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws but I still felt the disadvantages and hurdles growing up and becoming an African American man trying to understand why it seemed so much harder for me to succeed even though I tried, worked and networked three times harder as my white counterparts both in business and within the workplace.
Adam and I both felt internal angst about America and achieving the American dream but in two very different directions.  While Adam’s angst and path is often sympathized, even lauded at times, my angst and path is often discounted, demonized and scoffed as being simply excuses.

 Its impossible to read this diary and not think of the ways in which current despair (unemployment, loss of social status, fear of the future) leads people to a fantasy identification with an imaginary perfect past--whether of white rule in the case of the lost friend of the  Kos diary, or of Islamic rule.  There is an expression that I think about a lot qua Anthropologist and older woman: "the past is another country, they do things differently there."  Immigrants and older people are particularly susceptible to false nostalgia and there is a reason that nostalgia is one of the chief and most dangerous components of jingoistic nationalism and fascism--its a very potent drug.   When people like those described in the Kos diary imagine themselves dispossesed in their own country, sojourners in a strange land not their own, and far from the golden land/golden life they thought they were owed, we are going to see a surge of this bitter nostalgia.

Up until now I think we've been protected from the full brunt of this rage and despair from unemployed white men by their general laziness, fear of death or imprisonment, and their age.  But if things keep "trending downwards" for them and their children, and the hysterical language of theft and rage by the Republican party and Fox News keep being ratcheted up, I think we can expect to see more and more Tsarnaev like children of white privilege taking up weapons against their fellow citizens.  The blowback from this extended recession and the death of the white middle class is going to be extensive, over the next ten to twenty years, as the children of the unemployed and angry white working class and middle class age into disappointment and anger themselves.  At least as long as they identify the government with that hated "other"--non whites and women, gays and liberals.


  1. Great piece, but the link to the diary is busted—it goes to wiki instead.

  2. Thank you so much Scott. The great re-engineering of this post seems to have swallowed all my links. I'll try to get it fixed.