Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 20, 2013

Why and/or how?

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 20, 2013

On Friday night the President articulated what many are thinking, “…why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?  How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?  The families of those killed so senselessly deserve answers.  The wounded, some of whom now have to learn how to stand and walk and live again, deserve answers.”

In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers we have already put together some answers that will be difficult to amend, such as:  Big bad brother recruits sweet little brother to join him in murderous outburst.

We are not quite sure — yet — what precisely motivated big brother.  An uncle says he is an angry loser, a boxing buddy claims he is an alienated outsider, there are vague suggestions of a long-time pattern of simmering violence, growing religious intolerance, a very thin skin. Each of us has our own spectral adversary which we tend to project.

My hypothesis tends toward mobility, modernity, and absent meaning.

The boys divorced parents are currently in Russia.  There’s an ashamed uncle in Maryland, a shocked aunt in Canada.  “Close” friends discuss having most recently exchanged a text or some other digital communication in February.  On a social media site the younger brother identified his personal priorities as “career and making money.”  His twitter feed consists mostly of banal references to pop lyrics.

I glance at these initial reports and a complicated theory of how good and evil reside in each of us is reinforced.  I hear or read second-hand reports from which I cherry-pick bits and pieces that conform with my expectations and — by the way — reconfirm my wisdom.

A friend dismisses “why” questions even as he is tenacious in asking and answering “how” questions.  For him asking why implies purpose and presumes purpose is deterministic.  He has decided purpose is mostly after-the-fact human justification, rationalization, and telling ourselves stories.

I hope there are plenty who agree with my friend involved with deciphering the Tsarnaevs’ history. But I will continue to ask why, even as I try to resist self-justifying answers.

How helps.  How can often be answered precisely.  Many, maybe even most, whys lack precise answers. But if my “why” is honest and open it compels me to listen to you much more carefully. If you ask me why and also stop to listen for my response we have moved into a shared relationship around the question.

For someone concerned about mobility, modernity, and absent meaning this shared relationship is itself a big part of the answer.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

April 20, 2013 @ 6:54 am

Was it Eric Fromm who wrote “Escape From Freedom”?

The modern world is full of uncertainty and challenges and easy answers and beliefs provide some relief to some!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 20, 2013 @ 7:02 am

From Wikipedia:

Seligmann Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980) was a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. He was associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School of critical theory.[1]

[hide] 1 Life
2 Psychological theory 2.1 Six orientations
2.2 Fromm’s influence on other notable psychologists

3 Critique of Freud
4 Political ideas and activities
5 Criticism
6 Bibliography 6.1 Early work in German
6.2 Later works in English

7 See also
8 References
9 External links

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 20, 2013 @ 7:03 am

It is Erich Fromm not Eric!

Comment by HGRATTAN

April 20, 2013 @ 7:32 am


I will go along with people’s needs for: mobility, modernity, and absent meaning.

People want and need “purpose” a valid reason for living their lives. Human lives void of purpose are more susceptible to radicalization. The radical cause can provide purpose.

The literature on counter-radicalization is substantial but largely inconclusive. The same can be said about counter terrorism writ large.

Terrorism is a wicked problem. See Treverton’s wicked problems:

See also NYPD’s Radicalization in the West: http://www.nypdshield.org/public/SiteFiles/documents/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf

Semper Paratus

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 20, 2013 @ 8:03 am

Bill and Mr. Grattan:

Thanks. Two Erich Fromm quotes that seem germane:

“If I am what I have and if I lose what I have who then am I?”

“The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.”

Mr. Grattan, I agree there is a great deal about this problem-set that we barely begin to understand. Some aspect of this intellectual anemia results from a deep reluctance to recognize what we share with the terrorists. Given a few of your references, perhaps it is not inappropriate to suggest there may be a log in our eyes. I am not implying a causal connection. Our blindness does not justify their violence. I am wanting to encourage self-critique as contributing to more fully understanding others. From your comments, I perceive self-critique is embedded in your personal practice.

But even for any who might be more clear-eyed, surely this is a Wicked Problem… which reminds me of another Fromm quote:

“Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve.”

And as you wrote, worth taking a deep breath.

Comment by Michael Brady

April 20, 2013 @ 9:09 am


The quality of the discourse at Homeland Security Watch never fails to amaze me. Even without deep breathes the erudition shown here trumps all but a few of the pundits and essentially every last one of the clueless nitwits passed off as journalists on the 24 hour cable news advertising outlets. Keep it coming.

Comment by JD

April 20, 2013 @ 10:10 am

Interesting perspective in Slate from Dave Cullen, author of Columbine; perhaps these terrorists were more simply perpetrators of mass violence for other psychosocial reasons; certainly the Bonnie and Clyde-style robbery of the 7/11 and the slaying of the MIT officer fit more of the apolitical violence theme. Glad they caught one of ’em alive; maybe we can get some insight.

Link to Cullen article:

As a sidebar, I also find it interesting that the Obama “rule of law” administrative invoked the public safety clause to delay the Miranda rights of the surviving perp.

Comment by Michael Brady

April 20, 2013 @ 12:29 pm


Agreed. Slate has been getting more of this right than a lot of the other “print” outlets.

I wrote to Emily Bazelon this morning to compliment her on a very nice piece she put together at the end of what must have been a very day yesterday.

“Why Should I Care That No One’s Reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev His Miranda Rights?”


Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 20, 2013 @ 12:34 pm


Thanks very much. As my Thursday post (pre-identification of the Tsarnaev brothers) should suggest, I am pre-disposed to much of Mr. Cullen’s speculation. My working hypothesis is much more oriented to Clockwork Orange than 24 or Homeland. But a hypothesis with so little data isn’t worth much.

I had decided to stay quiet — working on my deep breathing, as Mr. Grattan has advised — until reading the Boston Globe editorial that follows.

The Globe’s focus on “radicalization” suggests the problem is — principally and obviously — an external threat, a kind of moral or intellectual contagion that insidiously targets the young. The solution is protective: “monitoring, countering with moderate appeals, reaching out to vulnerable young people — and calling the authorities when necessary.”

Even if we confirm that one or both of the brothers had been radicalized (this is far from well-established) the other side of this condition is a “vulnerability” to purpose, relationship, adventure, inspiration, and a meaningful life. Each of these stories — Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Times Square Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, etc. — have their particular tragically absurd aspect, but what they seem to share are young men who have horribly lost their way on the road of trials. They become the dragons, monsters, and other evil ones of our modern age.

I am not suggesting this diagnosis leads to a confident therapeutic prescription. I am not yet making this diagnosis of the Tsarneavs. I am arguing it is entirely too soon to diagnose radicalization and, in any case, the Boston Globe editorial board’s prescription is so banal that I am concerned it is more likely to spread disease than contain it.


NO ONE in Boston will forget the drama of the manhunt for two brothers suspected in the Marathon bombings. Nor will anyone forget the courage of the officers involved, including Sean Collier of the MIT police, who lost his life, and MBTA Transit officer Richard H. Donahue Jr., who was seriously injured. On Thursday night and Friday, residents of Greater Boston experienced the type of siege that most see only in movies. All along, though, the cooperation among authorities, victims, and an intensely engaged public made it clear there was no way for the bombers to escape accountability by remaining undetected.

The brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared in surveillance images to have dropped off bomb-laden backpacks near the finish line. Their baseball-capped faces look like those of ordinary young men almost anywhere in the country. But they also fit the profile of a growing danger faced by American communities: disaffected young people, prone to one form of radicalization or another, hoping to act out their frustrations in a blaze of carnage.

It’s a threat that Boston and the rest of America will be contending with for the foreseeable future. As global networks, such as the Al Qaeda operation that struck on 9/11, lose their leaders and their maneuvering room, smaller groups and individuals, operating with home-made weapons, will become more prominent.

As of Friday evening, authorities were probing the six months Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly spent outside the United States in early 2012; investigators are looking for links to overseas terrorists. The brothers are just the kind of young people such networks are pursuing: amateur operatives with “clean hands” — that is, no previous ties to radical groups to put them on watch lists. But the brothers could just as easily have been “self-radicalized,” like the chaplain who perpetuated the shootings at Fort Hood.

The Tsarnaevs came to the United States from the former Soviet Central Asia. Their family originally comes from Chechnya, which fought two bloody wars of independence, and where some fighters came to embrace radical Islam. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, made connections with friends and neighbors in Cambridge, where he won a local scholarship, and at UMass Dartmouth, where he studied and played sports. Yet news accounts Friday suggested he readily followed the lead of his brother, a boxer who once declared he had no American friends. Tamerlan, in his frustration, seems to have found solace in the teachings of an extreme Salafist imam, whose speeches are referenced on a YouTube account bearing Tamerlan’s name.

Though all this may feel exotic to many Bostonians — distant and alien — the basic storyline is not. Young people without secure family relationships and communities are prone to radicalism of many varieties. The appeal of a charismatic imam isn’t all that different than a charismatic white supremacist, anti-abortion militant, or animal-rights extremist: All have been known to motivate bombings in the past.

The burden of keeping young people from embracing radicalism falls, inevitably, on parents and families, communities, and ultimately law enforcement. The FBI and other agencies closely monitor the Internet activity of extremist groups, and must strive to adapt their intelligence-gathering capacities to the latest ways that young people communicate with each other. Local police must embrace that mission as well. On the home front, parents can monitor their children’s Internet addictions and associations, seeking help when needed. And where there are no family members, others must fill the gap.

Ironically, such connections existed for the Tsarnaevs through schools and universities. Both young men availed themselves of Massachusetts public higher education. Cambridge, with its earnest embrace of diversity, was seemingly among the most hospitable of environments for newcomers from overseas, and practicing Muslims. And yet it appears that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev found radicalism — or it found them.

This is a threat that can’t be contained through fences or wars, even though new security efforts should be pursued. Rather, it has to be fought at the human level. The best way to protect communities in Boston and across the nation is by combating foul and extremist ideologies of all stripes, through monitoring, countering with moderate appeals, reaching out to vulnerable young people — and calling the authorities when necessary.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 20, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

JD! Do we know which organization’s officer actually arrested the alleged perp?

And Michael any chance that Emily Bazelon is the daughter or granddaughter of the famous DC Circuit Judge that erected the modern legal standard for “Insanity” overturning the McNaughton Rule established by the English courts if memory serves?

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>