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'The Brothers' Examines Motivation Behind Boston Marathon Bombing


Lawyers for Johar Tsarnaev have admitted that he was one of the Boston bombers. The real question in his trial is whether jurors will give him the death penalty, which is why the defense for the 21-year-old has tried to show he was heavily influenced by his older brother. That brother, Tamerlan, was killed in the manhunt that followed their attack. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen writes about the Tsarnaevs and their relationship in her new book called "The Brothers." She spoke with our colleague, David Greene.


Masha Gessen wanted to tell the true story of the brothers - how they arrived at the point where they were killing and maiming innocent people. Now, a pivotal part of this story takes place in the southern Russian region of Dagestan. It was the last place the Tsarnaev family lived before immigrating to the U.S. in 2002. But even as they settled into their American lives, Dagestan called to them.

MASHA GESSEN: Tamerlan went back to Dagestan for six months in 2012. This is when sort of his boxing dreams have disintegrated. He has a young daughter in the United States. He has a wife. They're very poor. And nothing quite seems to be working. So he goes to Dagestan, where he suddenly discovers a place that is full of young men who are full of a sense of their own importance, who spend their time sitting around in cafes talking about the Quran and establishing an Islamic caliphate.

GREENE: Dagestan is home to an insurgency, with Russian security forces clamping down on a disenchanted population that's rediscovering its Islamic heritage. Amidst all this, Tamerlan began to feel at home with The Union of the Just. It's an organization of young Muslims which preaches nonviolence.

GESSEN: What Tamerlan experienced in Dagestan was a sort of radicalization. I just think it's a different kind of radicalization that what we usually mean when we use that word. And I think we usually use it inaccurately. I think it's a radical experience for somebody to feel at home - somebody who's been dislocated their entire lives.

GREENE: Who was he meeting with and what was he getting out of it?

GESSEN: He actually made very good friends with the deputy head of The Union of the Just. They spent most of their time together sitting around in cafes and talking about the Quran. And I think it made Tamerlan feel accepted. It made him feel at home. It made him feel heard. It made him feel sometimes like an expert, which he had never felt before. He could talk about the United States. And they talked about Russia. And they talked about discrimination against Muslims all over the world. They talked about important things that had shaped Tamerlan's life. He had never had the experience of talking to somebody about that. He had never had the experience of belonging. And I think that that is a kind of radicalization. And then what happened was that he went back to the United States and found himself, you know, in sweatpants, babysitting his daughter while his wife went to work. And I think it made his conversations in Dagestan and the experience of belonging to a group there seem even more appealing and even more glamorous.

GREENE: Masha Gessen says Tamerlan wasn't radicalized in the way we usually understand it, but he did leave Dagestan different. Back in Boston, he yelled at imams for being too secular. His friends in Dagestan weren't that impressed.

GESSEN: But the thing about international Islamic terrorism as we imagine it is that it's an opportunity for somebody who doesn't belong to engage and claim greatness. I mean, this is a young man who had been brought up to think that he was going to be great, that he was going to do something that really mattered. And he was a nobody. And nobody feels as much like a nobody as an immigrant does. And you can engage with a great power like the United States simply by throwing a bomb. You can declare war on the United States. And the amazing thing about it is that the United States will accept the declaration of war. We respond to terrorism by treating it not as a crime, but by treating it as war. So someone like Tamerlan, who feels small and insignificant, can suddenly claim a sense of belonging to a great, big effort - and a place in history.

GREENE: This is obviously an event that many Americans followed and have memories of. What do you hope people will learn from your book that they haven't learned from other places?

GESSEN: A couple of things. One is that - and I understand that this is a risky strategy, but I think it is really important to see people as people, and to try to understand the story, and perhaps catch yourself being sympathetic to these brothers, because I think that the more we understand about something that we believe is a huge threat to this country, the more effective we can be in fighting it.

GREENE: And you said catch yourself being sympathetic there -just want to make sure I understand that. You're suggesting that it can be healthy to find some level of sympathy somehow.

GESSEN: Yes, I am suggesting it could be healthy to find some level of sympathy because I think that the way that wars are fought is that the enemy is always dehumanized. That's what we have done with terrorism. It's a perfectly normal and logical thing to do. It also makes wars continue and build. And until you start seeing your enemy as a human being for at least a second, you're never going to advance in your understanding of what's going on. That's one thing I want people to take away from it. Another thing is I want people to question what they think about terrorism and the war on terror, and how it's fought, and the assumptions that have been made and that aren't usually questioned by the media, like this whole radicalization narrative.

GREENE: Before we started taping, you and I were talking, and you said, you know, you might not take your book and kind of go around promoting it too much in Boston. I mean, are you worried that people will not - especially in that city - appreciate any effort to humanize and explain actions like this and the people who committed them?

GESSEN: There are many, many people in Boston who are very interested in and invested in figuring out what happened. But there are also people who have been deeply hurt and deeply traumatized. And the city as a whole has been hurt and traumatized. So of course I wouldn't be surprised to meet with some sort of angry reaction.

GREENE: Do you blame them?

GESSEN: Not at all. I can't blame them at all. Now, I think it's a natural human reaction. And I think it falls to someone like me who has the luxury of - not at this moment. I actually went to high school in Boston. And I have a lot of connections to that city. But right now I don't live there, and I wasn't there during the marathon. And I have the luxury of being a couple of steps removed from the city, which makes me more, I think, able to tell the story than someone who was in the middle of that and who has experienced that pain fully. I am aware of that.

GREENE: Masha Gessen, thanks very much for taking the time to talk. We appreciate it.

GESSEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's David Greene speaking with journalist Masha Gessen. Her book, "The Brothers," is out next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.