A Review of The Brothers

Justin Bigos
The Brothers
Masha Gessen
New York, NY: Riverhead, 2015.
320 pages. $16 (paperback)

In an early chapter of The Brothers, Masha Gessen recounts how Tamerlan Tsarnev’s elementary school teacher, Natalya Kurochkina, told Gessen than Tamerlan “was afraid of fireworks, presumably because he had been terrified by the bombing in Chechnya” (37). By the time he was a late teen in his new home of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tamerlan had become competitive in the popular Caucasian sport of boxing, and he had begun to dress in what he called “European style”: “flowing shirts unbuttoned all the way down to his navel, huge scarves, and pointy silver shoes” (78). In an interview for a photo essay in a graduate student magazine at Boston University, Tamerlan says, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them” (77). In fact, Tamerlan’s best friend was Brandon Mess, a born-and-raised American. In fact, Tamerlan’s parents were not from Chechnya, but from Dagestan and Kazakhstan. In fact, the family, including Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokhar, and two sisters, had eventually moved to Chechnya, but quickly fled at the outbreak of war with Russia in 1994.

In many ways, Masha Gessen’s The Brothers is a story about storytelling. While Tamerlan is arguably the protagonist of the book, as he seems to have been the major planner of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 (his laconic, pot-smoking brother, Jahar, more a loyal accomplice, at least according to his legal defense at trial), the large cast of characters of this sprawling narrative contain many people who find ways to invent and continually reinvent themselves. But why reinvent the self? For millions of immigrants around the world, the answer can be very simple: in order to survive. Cultural assimilation can be a form of survival in largely xenophobic cultures, of course; when the culture in question also has targeted a particular group for distrust, such as the U.S. targeting Muslims and Middle Easterners after 9/11, then the need to assimilate becomes even stronger. As Gessen points out, when the (somewhat) Muslim Tsarnev family began to arrive in Cambridge, in 2002, “they landed in America precisely at the moment when they and their kind were seen as most suspect” (60). Dzhokhar, attending Rindge and Latin public school, had stopped trying to explain to his peers where Chechnya was and, instead, started telling them he was from Russia. After toying with the nickname “Timberland” (“like the shoe,” he’d say), he changed his name to the easier-to-spell “Jahar” (97). If Jahar was trying to fit in, however, his brother, Tamerlan, seemed insistent on appearing alien. As Gessen shows, though, his clinging to a romantic, imaginary, war-scarred past in Europe was in opposition to his repeated attempts to find real success in America: as a boxer, a musician, an employee, then as a young husband and father living with his parents. America’s promise had not been met, and Tamerlan, like millions before him, felt frustrated and defeated. The central, and ultimately unanswerable question, which Gessen circles around for much of the book, is why Tamerlan and Jahar committed such horrific violence in their adopted home, while the overwhelming majority of frustrated, alienated people do not turn to terrorism.

Gessen’s resistance to an easy answer to that question is one of the major strengths of the book. Gessen debunks the radicalization theory, in which vulnerable people are gradually led in stages toward terrorism — a theory embraced by the FBI but dismissed by most academics for its overall lack of evidence. Gessen also questions the knee-jerk assumption that terrorists work in networks, often unseen and which require much police work to track down and infiltrate. Gessen does acknowledge that the FBI has more recently conceded a bit of ground to the “lone wolf” theory, but that most U.S. law enforcement, especially post-9/11, continue to assume the model of “radicalized” terrorists working in hidden, sprawling, nefarious networks. When this is not the case, as is probably the case with Tamerlan and Jahar (though Gessen does leave the question open as to whether or not the brothers would have needed assistance to assemble their bombs, as well as provocatively insinuate that the FBI may have set up Tamerlan), law enforcement proceeds on their predetermined path toward an “outsize” response (163). In this way, US law enforcement has told itself a story about terrorism, and it cannot seem to shake it. Meanwhile, all those people rounded up, intimidated, threatened, held without lawyers and water for hours, and sometimes deported on minor offences, pay the price for this story, as Gessen shows in painful detail. This book is at least as much theirs, the “invisible victims” of the book’s epigraph, as it is the Tsarnev brothers’.

During the trial of Jahar — Tamerlan having been killed in the bombing’s ensuing manhunt — Gessen (in attendance at the trial) “lost count of the number of times members of the prosecution team or witnesses said the phrase ‘We were attacked,’” (277) and also recounts two police officers on the stand who mentioned Iraq. One of these officers, dressed in full uniform, explained how she had stayed with a bombing victim after the victim was dead because “she wanted to make sure the victim’s face was preserved in case there was a third blast” (276). The reason? She explained further: “her own cousin was killed in Iraq and she had never seen him after he died” (276). One can imagine the appeal to pathos this made in the room of jurors and attendees, whether the rhetorical appeal was conscious or not. The police officer’s connecting of the Boston Marathon bombing with the war in Iraq seems, on the surface, genuinely personal and therefore innocent. Yet, whatever the intention, it is clear that the violence of Tamerlan and Jahar was already being seen as part of the larger story of the “War on Terror.” In its mixture of sincere, intimate pain and a kind of latent, sentimental patriotism, this police officer’s testimony seems to capture something essential — and I believe Gessen would agree — dangerous in the collective (or dominant, at least) American psyche.

There is much more to praise about The Brothers than there is space for in this review — and many other reviewers have done so in the past two years since the book was first published. It is worth returning to Jahar’s schoolteacher’s claim that Jahar was afraid of fireworks due to his war trauma in Chechnya. Of course, the bombs the brothers used were made, in part, from fireworks. The teacher, when interviewed, surely knew that. Gessen rightfully qualifies the anecdotal quote as perhaps “too handy a foreshadowing to be fully believed” (39). The schoolteacher is one of many who in Gessen’s narrative appear as minor characters, to be sure, but more importantly, these minor characters are actual people who will continue to tell their own versions of the Tsarnev story. There is a responsibility in storytelling, maybe especially when it is nonfiction and for many people a matter of life and death. We owe Masha Gessen our gratitude for making her tale one that is piercing in its seeking, yet resistant to easy answers to our most difficult, timely questions. The thought that this book will continue to be read for many years feels both just and terrifying.

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