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.