Recently, Rolling Stone had a story about the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Olympic bombing, which touched off a firestorm of controversy. What people have found so objectionable, apparently, was that the magazine’s cover photo depicted the alleged terrorist as an ordinary, even friendly-looking young man. The magazine’s own editors have had this to say:
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
Yet as it happens, the picture does capture the essence of the story-of how a typical, almost unnoticeable young man became a monster, while giving people around him precious few hints of what was going on behind the façade: that while his looks were not changing, on the inside his brain was rotting, under the influence of Islamic faith. It is almost reminiscent of the Oscar Wilde’s “the Picture of Dorian Gray” (above).
The centerpiece of the story is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the young men who now awaits trial and has pleaded not guilty to charges against him. Years earlier, though, almost no one would suspect that this would become his destiny. We are told about a young immigrant, who, while facing challenges like everyone, seemed to be assimilating well, and looking forward to a bright future.
All of the Tsarnaev children went to Rindge, as the school is known, but it was Jahar who assimilated best. Though he’d arrived in America speaking virtually no English, by high school he was fluent, with only a trace of an accent, and he was also fluent in the local patois. (Among his favorite words, his friends say, was “sherm,” Cambridge slang for “slacker.”) Jahar, or “Jizz,” as his friends also called him, wore grungy Pumas, had a great three-point shot and became a dedicated pot smoker – something a number of Cambridge teens tell me is relatively standard in their permissive community, where you can score weed in the high school bathrooms and smoke on the street without much of a problem. A diligent student, he was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team. “He was one of those kids who’s just a natural,” says Payack, his coach, who recalls Jahar as a supportive teammate who endured grueling workouts and runs without a single complaint. In his junior year, the team made him a captain. By then, everyone knew him as ‘Jahar,’ which his teammates would scream at matches to ensure the refs would never mispronounce his name.
“He was smooth as fuck,” says his friend Alyssa, who is a year younger than Jahar. Girls went a little crazy over him – though to Jahar’s credit, his friends say, even when he had crushes, he never exploited them. “He’d always be like, ‘Chill, chill, let’s just hang out,'” says Sam, recalling Jahar’s almost physical aversion to any kind of attention. “He was just really humble – that’s the best way to describe him.”
Cara, a vivacious, pretty blonde whom some believe Jahar had a secret crush on, insists they were just friends. “He was so sweet. He was too sweet, you know?” she says sadly. The two had driver’s ed together, which led to lots of time getting high and hanging out. Jahar, she says, had a talent for moving between social groups and always seemed able to empathize with just about anyone’s problems. “He is a golden person, really just a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone,” she says. “It’s hard to really explain Jahar. He was a Cambridge kid.”
I will spare the lengthy details of day by day life, that never made anyone suspicious about anything unusual. As for his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he wasn’t doing as well, but overall not so bad, either.
Already a teenager when he arrived in America, Tamerlan spoke with a thick Russian accent, and though he enrolled in the English as a Second Language program at Rindge, he never quite assimilated. He had a unibrow, and found it hard to talk to girls. One former classmate recalls that prior to their senior prom, a few of Tamerlan’s friends tried to find him a date. “He wasn’t even around,” she says, “it was just his friends asking girls to go with him.” But everyone said no, and he attended the prom alone.
After graduating in 2006, he enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College to study accounting, but attended for just three semesters before dropping out. A talented pianist and composer, he harbored a desire to become a musician, but his ultimate dream was to become an Olympic boxer, after which he’d turn pro. This was also his father’s dream – a champion boxer himself back in Russia, Anzor reportedly pushed Tamerlan extremely hard, riding behind him on his bicycle while his son jogged to the local boxing gym. And Tamerlan did very well under his father’s tutelage, rising in the ranks of New England fighters.
And it was then that trouble started, as he got involved with-you guessed it: religion.
His uncle Ruslan had urged him to join the Army. It would give him structure, he said, and help him perfect his English. “I told him the best way to start your way in a new country – give something,” Ruslan says. But Tamerlan laughed, his uncle recalls, for suggesting he kill “our brother Muslims.”
Tamerlan had discovered religion, a passion that had begun in 2009. In interviews, Zubeidat [his mother] has suggested it was her idea, a way to encourage Tamerlan, who spent his off-hours partying with his friends at local clubs, to become more serious. “I told Tamerlan that we are Muslim, and we are not practicing our religion, and how can we call ourselves Muslims?” she said.
The well-wishing mom!
Before long, Tamerlan had quit drinking and smoking pot, and started to pray five times a day, even taking his prayer rug to the boxing gym. At home, he spent long hours on the Internet reading Islamic websites, as well as U.S. conspiracy sites, like Alex Jones’ InfoWars. He told a photographer he met that he didn’t understand Americans and complained about a lack of values. He stopped listening to music. “It is not supported by Islam,” Tamerlan said. “Misha says it’s not really good to create or listen to music.” Then, in 2011, he decided to quit boxing, claiming it was not permitted for a Muslim to hit another man.
Zubeidat, too, had become increasingly religious – something that would get in the way of her marriage as well as her job at an upscale Belmont salon, where she broke for daily prayers and refused to work on male clients. She was ultimately fired, after which she turned her living room into a minisalon. One of her former clients recalls her wearing “a head wrap” in the house, and a hijab whenever she went outside. “She started to refuse to see boys who’d gone through puberty,” recalls the client. “A religious figure had told her it was sacrilegious.”
What really struck her client, beyond Zubeidat’s zeal, were her politics. During one facial session, she says, Zubeidat told her she believed 9/11 was a government plot to make Americans hate Muslims. “It’s real,” she said. “My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet.”
Religion and conspiracy delusions make an explosive mix. But even if she were right, her two sons certainly helped further the “government” cause!
It was during this period that Jahar told his friend Will that he felt terrorism could be justified, a sentiment that Tamerlan apparently shared. Whether or not Jahar truly agreed with his brother, their relationship was one where he couldn’t really question him. In Chechen families, Baudy says, “Your big brother is not quite God, but more than a normal brother.” When they were kids, Baudy recalls, Tamerlan used to turn off the TV and make them do pushups. Now he urged them to study the Koran.
“Jahar found it kind of a nuisance,” says Baudy, and tried to shrug it off as best as he could. But he couldn’t do much. “You’re not going to get mad at your elders or tell them to stop doing something, especially if it’s about being more religious.”
Because of course, in so many different cultures religion gets automatic deference, even when you get the sense that something is not quite right. And hence, the “innocent” young man started becoming more and more religious, under the influence of his elder brother. Even family members picked up on this and tried to stop it-in vain.
The boys’ uncle Ruslan hoped that Jahar, away at school, would avoid Tamerlan’s influence. Instead, Jahar began to echo his older brother’s religious fervor. The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. “For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD,” he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause,” he declared.
Last December, Jahar came home for Christmas break and stayed for several weeks. His friends noticed nothing different about him, except that he was desperately trying to grow a beard – with little success.
And we know what happened next. After the bombing, his brother was killed in a shootout with the police, and Dzokhar, wounded, went hiding in a boat.
When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according- to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jahar appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But “the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all,” he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliche. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: “Fuck America.”
Which is interesting, given this precedent.
“He kind of did, one time to me, express that he thought acts of terrorism were justified,” says Will. It was around their jun-ior year; the boys had been eating at a neighborhood joint called Izzy’s and talking about religion. With certain friends – Will and Sam among them – Jahar opened up about Islam, confiding his hatred of people whose “ignorance” equated Islam with terrorism, defending it as a religion of peace and describing jihad as a personal struggle, nothing more.
And, among his tweets, only 3 months before the bombing:
“I don’t argue with fools who say Islam is terrorism it’s not worth a thing, let an idiot remain an idiot.”
I find it most amusing when people like Tsarnaev effectively accuse founders of Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami (which have tens of millions of followers) of “ignorance” about Islam-and then go on to prove them correct!