Vain search for a smok­ing gun

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field

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

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