Vain search for a smoking gun
The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy By Masha Gessen Scribe, 288pp, $29.99 On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 260.
The media — mainstream and citizen, offline and on — went into round-the-clock torchesand-pitchforks mode, misidentifying suspects, fingering the innocent and generally seeing Goody Proctor with the Devil wheresoever they could. Then, when the FBI formally identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as suspects three days later, a thousand overnight Chechnya experts sprang up armed with Wikipedia articles and Mikhail Lermontov’s poetry and an entire ethnicity was dragged through the mud.
How to make sense of the brothers’ actions? Their Chechen identity? Their religious beliefs? The harsh realities of being an immigrant in post-9/11 America? Familial breakdown? Everyone seemed to have an opinion or theory, but never one that satisfactorily or definitively answered the question.
Following her bestselling books on Vladimir Putin and Russian rock band Pussy Riot, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has taken it on herself to tackle this question, issuing a post-mortem on the whole affair in The Tsarnaev Brothers.
One could be forgiven for feeling she’s more than a bit premature in doing so: the whole affair isn’t over yet.
A US federal jury only recently voted to impose the death penalty on Dzhokhar, who will be formally sentenced late next month, with years of appeals likely to follow. But, then, Gessen appears rather less interested in what happens next than she does in what happened first, turning her attention and ours to the personal, cultural and historical forces that shaped the brothers and their family and brought them to this point.
The result is a curious amalgam of investigative journalism, court reporting, potted history, pop psychology and — Gessen being Gessen — thinly veiled speculation. It is animated by a near-constant tension between its author’s desire to discover a smoking gun in the family’s story — a moment or conversation or event that might explain why the brothers did what they did — and her sneaking suspicion that no such gun exists. Gessen travels from Dagestan to Kyrgyzstan, Boston to Orlando, overturning every stone she comes across but rarely discovering anything beneath to help turn the boys from unknowable ciphers into something more closely resembling human beings.
Her response — a smart conceit that also gives the book its length and prevents it from becoming a mere pamphlet — is to use the brothers’ story as a prism through which to shed light on issues and phenomena besides the two young men and their actions. Early chapters on the bombers’ parents and grandparents thus become a short history of the Chechens’ exile to Central Asia under Joseph Stalin, and those about the family’s relocation to the US a more general reflection on the immigrant experience. Later chapters dealing with the aftermath of the bombing, when seemingly any immigrant connected to the pair was subjected to investigation and harassment, constitute a broad and passionate treatise on the perversion of law enforcement in contemporary America.
These latter chapters are perhaps the most unsettling section of the book. The FBI, not content with killing Tamerlan and capturing Dzhokhar, immediately set about arresting, deporting and, in one case, killing their friends and acquaintances. One didn’t even have to have known the brothers particularly well. All that Yet this book lacks the suspense found in Larson’s previous books. Engagement with too many individuals, on boarding the ship and preparing for its arrival at Liverpool, has a dulling effect. There is a sense of haste in the writing, which is uneven in parts: “flirtations became more flirty”. There are explanations that seem unnecessary, as when Churchill watches “doctors at work trepanning a soldier, that is cutting a hole in his skull”. The book’s tone changes in the last 53 pages, where Larson covers reactions from Washington, Berlin and London, as well as the lead-up to the US joining the war. You get a sense that he relies too heavily on survivors’ reports, without enough historical reflection.
Ultimately, this is a human story. Larson paints a vivid picture of the ship on its last voyage and some of its passengers, including how a few of the 763 individuals who survived the sinking were affected. Perhaps the most compelling experience of the event comes from the U-boat commander: the accounts, drawn from Walther Schweiger’s War Log, best achieve Larson’s aim that a reader spend some time in the past and experience the moment. one needed, as anthropologist and commentator Sarah Kendzior put it at the time, was to be “the wrong kind of Caucasian”.
It is refreshing to see Gessen applying to US procedures and pathologies the same withering glare she has long applied to Russia’s, and without the air of personal animosity that too often characterises her criticisms of the latter nation. While never once doubting the brothers’ guilt, it is obvious she is equally outraged by the actions of law enforcement officials in the months that followed the bombing.
Indeed, her faith in the justice system appears to have been as shaken as that of her immigrant interviewees, such as Elena Teyer, the mother-in-law of Ibragim Todashev, the latter of whom was killed during questioning by FBI agents and Boston police in Orlando, Florida, in 2013. A Russian immigrant who fell in love with the promise of America and joined its military as a result, Teyer was dogged by the FBI for her connection to Todashev, who investigators believed had been involved with the elder brother in an unsolved triple murder. She was eventually strong-armed out of the army on the grounds she was under investigation.
“America’s promise of fairness, openness, and honesty had turned out to be a ruse, [Teyer] concluded,” Gessen writes. “It was not a better country than Russia; it was just a better liar … The same rules applied in this country as in the old one. The secret police killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later.”
Gessen’s writing, even when bolstered by a good deal of journalistic legwork, has a tendency to lapse into speculation. Within moments of dismissing a number of the conspiracy theories that have long swirled around the brothers’ case, arguing that “the bulk of contradictions and inconsistencies in this story can be explained by things much more pervasive and also often more dangerous than conspiracies”, she launches into such a theory of her own.
It’s not that it’s a bad theory — she suggests Tamerlan was an FBI asset, or potential asset, gone rogue and that much of the agency’s behaviour in the wake of the bombing can be explained by its desire to keep this information under wraps. It’s rather that, without any evidence or documentation more concrete or damning than the circumstantial tidbits we’re offered here, a theory is all it ever can be.
In the end, Gessen’s desire to find the smoking gun wins out, but the gun she winds up finding is one she has had to invent. The Tsarnaev brothers remain elusive and the questions at the heart of their story unanswered.
A firefighter carries an injured girl from the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing; killers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, far left, who later died after a gunfight with police, and his brother Dzhokhar, left, who has been found guilty of the attack and sentenced to death