The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Cat Was A Chechen

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev

We wrote a couple of days ago about the ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ moment through which the country was passing. We knew that there had been a terrible attack in Boston, but we did not know who was responsible. For us, this represented an opportunity to reflect on the pure evil of an attack on peaceful citizens without being distracted by the politics if any of the attack. For some, however, it was an opportunity to speculate about who was responsible: was the loon (or loons) behind this crime a tax resister, a white supremacist, an Islamic religious nut or what?  Some on what passes for the left in the United States these days expressed the hope that the attackers were white men, others voiced a full-throated hope that the attackers would turn out to be Muslim.

As of this writing, the city of Boston is still shut down and we don’t know exactly what has happened, but it appears that the hopes of both groups were fulfilled in part. The brothers apparently responsible for the attack are white Caucasian males, and they are also Muslims. The Tsarnaev brothers are believed to be Chechens who may have spent time in the former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan; it is not yet known whether their motivations were religious, political or muddled. With the death of the older brother, presumably the ringleader, we may never know exactly what mix of ideas and emotions drove him to his ugly and sordid end.

It will take time to process this attack, and unless the surviving brother is captured alive and tried, the human reality behind the attack may remain veiled. But there are some things we do know now, and they are worth noting.

First, this country remains vulnerable to terror attacks. The Marathon bombers with a relatively small amount of unsophisticated material were able to wreak immense havoc. As of this morning, there is no public transit, no taxi service, no Amtrak service and air transportation disrupted in and out of one of America’s most vibrant cities. The economic costs are substantial and will fall heavily on immigrants and hourly workers for whom the loss of even one day’s pay is a heavy blow. The cable news channels and the national conversation are fixed on the manhunt; there is nothing else on the news.  That two young men on a small budget can accomplish all this will give many of our enemies food for thought.

Second, Russia must look to its Olympics. The winter games are scheduled in Sochi, a beautiful city of palm trees and orange groves on Russia’s stunning Black Sea coast that is dangerously close to the unstable regions of the Russian Caucasus. There is no evidence currently connecting the Tsarnaevs to any organized religious or political group, but that is no consolation for Russian authorities as they think about their security problem. The violence in the Caucasus has spawned organized terror groups and also created unguided small groups that may be much harder to track. Many countries are going to be hesitant about sending their athletes to Russia next year, and many tourists will likely stay home.

Third, the attack strikes a blow against the Obama administration’s core strategy for dealing with a dangerous world. One of the core guiding ideas of the current presidency is that by overreacting to the terror threat the Bush administration made a bad situation worse. The Obama administration has tried to bring cool and calm to the situation, working hard to prevent new terror attacks in the United States even as it sought to defuse the international climate, wind down the wars and turn the nation’s perception away from the concept of an existential struggle with radical Islam to one of a police action against a handful of radicals and specific organization.

There is much to be said for this approach, but the administration has always known that any sign of domestic terror would challenge it. That fear is surely one reason why the Obama administration has been consistently willing to challenge civil liberty activists with heavy handed enforcement and intelligence gathering measures both at home and abroad. It is impossible to tamp down the anger and the fear associated with terrorism without curbing terror itself.  It is likely that concern for the viability of this strategy helped generate the otherwise bizarre statements from so many “hoping” that the cause of the terror attack was a domestically focused right wing group, preferably white and male.

The Marathon attack is one more reminder that Americans cannot wall themselves off from problems in other parts of the world. And it goes to show that the blowback theory of terrorism is probably overstated. America is a minor actor in the Chechen tragedy, but the consequences of that struggle are dominating our headlines today.

Published on April 19, 2013 10:05 am
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Burke/507873299 John Burke

    Professor, professor, while it’s true that you can’t get more Caucasian than to come from the Caucasus, no one who knows anything about the contemporary jihad is the least bit surprised that the cats are Chechens. Chechens played a key role in al Qaeda from its inception, provided trained, experienced troops fresh from the Chechen war to put military skill and backbone into bin Laden’s “Arab brigades” in Afghanistan. During the CIA-led United Front offensive in late 2001, Chechens were invariably among the toughest and most fanatic fighters. Though violently suppressed by the Russians, the jihad continues inside Chechnya and the surrounding region, providing any number of points of contact for inspired jihadi wannabes in Cambridge.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Burke/507873299 John Burke

      Let’s also keep in mind that the brothers may have had confederates in this country. In fact, there are some fragmentary reports about a third subject.

      Also, this reminds me of the foiled Fort Hood terror plot in 2007 which involved four ethnic Albanians as well as a Palestinian and a Turk who were planning to attack soldiers at the fort. At that time, there was a degree of mystifications that the bad guys were Albanians (thought well of by neighbors, too) rather than Middle Easterners or South Asians.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Burke/507873299 John Burke

      OK, one more thing and then I’ll shut up. Various TV anchors and talking heads are already obsessing over how “normal,” “Americanized” young men who were into partying, etc., etc. could be transformed in short order into vicious killers. Much the same sort of thing was said about the Times Square bomber and the Fort Hood shooter. What this fails utterly to understand that today’s jihad is a political movement. It draws on the religious fervor of many Sunni Muslims and seeks to build Islamic solidarity with its aims, but those aims — drive Hindus from Kashmir, Jews from Palestine, Russians from Chechnya, infidels from the Arabian peninsula, and above all the powerful Americans who protect the rest from the “Islamic world.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Lea/579129865 Luke Lea

    “it is not yet known whether their motivations were religious, political or muddled.”

    Maybe not “known” but the Islamic motive seems most plausible unless you consider it a mere coincidence: after all we are in the midst of a declared war against radical Islam (aka “the war on terror).

    That said and considering their immigrant status in the US, I cannot recommend too highly John Updikes novel Terrorist . It is an empathetic (not sympathetic) exploration of the problem of alienation experienced by Muslim youth trying to assimilate to a multicultural America. That the older brother said he did not have a single American friend and did not “understand” this country speaks volumes. So, yes, there is an element of muddle too. That’s part of what cultural alienation is.

    As for trying to place some of the blame on Obama — well, come on, your partisanship is showing. At enormous expense in dollars and inconvenience the US has been amazingly successful at preventing random, unpredictable events of this kind. In terms of costs and benefits maybe a little too successful. We’ve sacrificed a lot of our freedom in the process.

  • bigfire

    So the bombers are not Tea Party. MSM hit hardest.

  • Anatoly_M

    From what we know at this point, their family came to America as refugees in about 2002. Younger brother went to school in Dagestan (Russian Federation, next to Chechnya) just for 1st grade. It looks like their family escaped the 1st Chechnya war and lived in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before coming back to Caucasus and then to US.

    So, back in 2002 the younger brother was what 8? And older one 15?

    Their uncle (unless he was giving an Oscar performance) sounded devastated, shocked and summarized that the bastards do not deserve to live.

    The brothers were not seasoned Chechen warriors as one might immediately think. Nothing came out yet about military training abroad. They were good athletes – boxing and wrestling – and smart enough for the younger one to get a town college scholarship. Good looking too.

    So, the big question is how these guys, living most of their cognitive lives in America, not just did not assimilate enough but radicalized to the level of wanting to hurt as many people/Americans as possible, including kids? Similar to the UK doctors, second or third generation immigrants from Pakistan, with above average doctors’ pay and doctors’ “do no harm” pledge, becoming jihadists, remember?

    I blame multiculturalism that opened the door for their Islamisation. You come to the West, get integrated into the West. Respecting others should not mean stopping respecting yourself. Respecting a dignity of others should not mean accepting or closing your eyes to others’ faults. American achievements are real and too many to count. Why shouldn’t we be proud and assertive? Why should we forget everything that worked, what made those achievements possible? We lost balance and proportion. Melting pot works, salad bowl does not.

  • Anthony

    Terrorism is generally understood as premeditated violence perpetrated by a non-state actor (or actors) against noncombatants (innocents, civilians, citizens, etc.) in pursuit of a political, religious, or social goal. The Boston bombing appears to fit.
    “The Marathon attack is one more reminder that Americans cannot wall themselves off from problems in other parts of the world.” Yes, it is a reminder but terrorism is a peculiar category of violence – increased ratio of fear to harm. Panic is whole point of terrorism as it tries to leverage fear to generate societal dis-ease. Prudence more than vigilance ought to be guiding word without diminishing act of two young men who through surprise and secrecy got America’s attention.

  • Kavanna

    Sad but true.

    I’m not sure all that “crowdsourcing” coverage of the suspects was such a good idea. At some point yesterday, they clearly panicked.

  • USNK2

    Mr. Mead: re: Sochi? Read Bullough’s “Let Their Fame be Great” for depth on the Caucausus.
    Sochi2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Tsarist genocide/expulsion of the Circassians, who may (or not) be planning disruptive attacks to protest the huge insult of Russia using Sochi for the Olympics. Of course, Circassians are key in the Middle East (the Ottomans resettled many of the survivors), guarding the King of Jordan, serving in Israel’s IDF, and allied with Syria’s Assad.
    Chechens have their own genuine grievances with Tsarist, and Stalin’s Russia, but not sure they will disrupt Sochi2014.

  • TheCynical1

    Until we know more about the specific motives of the bombers, it remains too early to assert — as fact — that this bombing is a “consequence” of the “Chechen tragedy.” Speculation, including “informed reasonable speculation” like this, is fine but it should be recognized as such.

  • Jim Luebke

    I have to wonder — the casualty count I’ve seen looks very lopsided, 3 dead and 150 wounded. Were the bombs not very effective (only killing 3, in large crowds like that) or was the presence of the medical tents (and the presence of mind of the doctors in them) a factor that helped keep the wounded in the wounded column?

    • Philopoemen

      I think that ratio is typical for this type of weapon. It’s designed to maim, not necessarily kill. Unless you get a handful of nails to the head or to a vital organ, odds are you will be badly injured but will not die.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Atanu-Maulik/100000528219784 Atanu Maulik

    It takes a special kind of stupidity on the part of American immigration officials to chose and pick the worst crap from around the world, while harassing Professors from India travelling to US to attend conferences.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Atanu-Maulik/100000528219784 Atanu Maulik

      I do not always blame the immigration officers though. Their job requires them to not apply common sense, lest someone cry discrimination.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I don’t think we have learned how to fight Islamic terrorism because we, with our tolerant modern, even postmodern, attitudes cannot comprehend a full blown combination of premodern religious fanaticism with totalitarian modern politics. That combination is exactly what emerged with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Win-win is outside the ken of totalitarians who know that they are absolutely right and doing God’s will. . Bush thought 9/11 was like Pearl Harbor. Obama thinks he can contain Islamism like we did the Soviets. Elements of both struggles are there, but this problem is new. It causes us to make category errors. I don’t know the name of the new categories either but I now we need to figure this out soon.

  • http://twitter.com/BlatonHardey Blaton Hardey

    Who’s going to pay all the medical bills of the injured people??

  • http://twitter.com/BlatonHardey Blaton Hardey

    Who’s going to pay for all the injured people’s medical bills?