"I simply can't believe it's the same person!"
"Why did he do it? What possible motivation could he have had?"
How many times have we heard these sentences during the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers and beyond? Remarks such as these reveal a mentality that is out of touch with knowledge of what it means to be a human being and blind to our cultural matrix: we should never forget that each of us is capable of anything, given sufficient context and provocation.
Next, the amount of repression, schmoozing and masking required to live successfully in a culture such as ours that is based on competitive materialism, appearances, and spin, as opposed to authenticity and integrity, can arouse unbearable conflicts, in sensitive, intelligent, impressionable people, especially those who come from life-threatening situations in which everyone's life is on the line. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seems to have been such a person.
And though she came from a very different background to the Tsarnaevs, these conflicts also arose in my classmate, Diana Oughton, who, as a member of the Weather Underground, blew up a house on West 11th Street in New York City while she was making bombs to kill and maim servicemen and women at a dance in New Jersey. Some people who knew her at that time say she set it off deliberately.
Das was the daughter of a wealthy banker, privately educated. She had a stable midwestern childhood and, from a material point of view, everything a young girl could desire. She was attractive, popular, and intelligent. She was physically graceful and accomplished, a leading member of the modern dance club at Madeira School. She was accepted by all seven of the Ivy League Seven Sisters when she applied for college. She obtained a degree from Bryn Mawr.
She then began to work with poor children in the USA and in Guatemala. Their plight cut her to the quick. She was horrified by poverty and squalor, by the indifference and corruption of governments and individuals. She became increasingly torn: she hated the impact of affluence on society, but she equally despised Marxism. From all accounts she felt increasingly alien from everyone, personally and culturally, including herself. She fragmented every political pressure groups she belonged to, including the Weathermen, becoming ever more radical. One friend who saw her in the days before the bomb shredded her body said that she and her friends seemed disoriented, incapable of making rational decisions. One might say her terrorism arose from her having been terrorised by the state of the world.
Remember the Unabomber? He was perhaps another person of this stripe. A lot of people agreed with much of what was in his manifesto, though they completely rejected his violent tactics. And reaching back a little further into history, whoever would have thought that the mild-mannered pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would become part of a group that attempted to murder Hitler?
It doesn't take a mentor, or a conspiracy, or an organisation to make a terrorist: it takes a culture of extremity, whether that culture expresses its extremity as the idolatry of materialism, religious fanaticism or genocide. Every time an event such as the Boston marathon bombing takes place, we need to look hard at the stresses our own culture puts on people, far more than we need to look outside and beyond our selves and our international borders in a paranoid search for aliens conspiring against us.