The Tsarnaevs’ Traumatic Narratives

I don’t have much to add about the biographies of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I certainly won’t presume the cause or intent of their bombings of the Boston Marathon. Here we have two young men, the now deceased Tamerlan, 26, and captured and injured Dzhokhar, 19, both born in a Chechen diaspora community in the town of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, they moved with their family to Dagestan, Russia. After a year or so, they came to the United States as war refugees. Like many American immigrants, the Tsarnaev family lived a working class life. Anzor, the father, worked as a mechanic. The mother, Zubeidat, was a cosmetologist. By most accounts, the Tsarnaev brothers lived a typical American male life: school, partying, sports, and alienation. As immigrants they lived an in-between existence. They had all the trappings of Americaness, but by their own admission, they felt not quite American. Eventually, both turned to radical Islam and developed an intense desire to reclaim their Chechen identity. At the moment, what dove them to violence is anyone’s guess.

There’s been a lot of debate about how much Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s “Checheness” figures into their bombing attack. Yet, what strikes me are the narratives of trauma that try to discern the meaning of “Chechnya” in the Tsarnaevs’ personal lives and, more often, as a implicit explanation for their violence. The discourse of trauma as a means to explain violence reveals how much psychological rationalizations imbue our public discourse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I would caution against using trauma to find the rationality in the irrational. For me, trauma only works as an analytic to understand how the irrational becomes rational to the traumatized subject. So far, the trauma talk around the brothers Tsarnaev seeks to identify the former and not the latter.

Many profiles of Tsarnaevs read as if the duo suffered from a litany of traumas: collective trauma, war trauma, the trauma of geographical displacement, and the trauma of fragmented identity. There are surely more. Even when commentators disavow Chechnya as having any role in the Tsarnaevs’ actions, the current ritualistic recounting of Chechnya’s tragic history, even when it’s to educate the American public, implies that they were nonetheless traumatized anyway. Indeed, the headline for a Bloomberg comment says it all: “Boston Revives Trauma for Chechens in U.S.

After all, the logic goes, for a people that have suffered as much as the Chechens have, how could these young men not be traumatized? If the trauma isn’t located in them specifically, then surely there are reenacting that of their forebears? It is as if to be Chechen is to be traumatized. In fact, based on a lot of what has been written in the last few days, Chechens are only afforded two subject positions: sufferers and violent rebels. As Charles Clover wrote in the Financial Times, “Suffering and violent rebellion are twin themes of Chechnya’s national mythology.” Suffering and violent rebellion are also born of the same source: trauma.

I’m still trying to figure out what all this might mean. But I find something attractive and deeply troubling about the media discourse framing the Tsarnaevs as potential embodiments of traumatic legacies. I’m drawn toward it because it tries, however imperfectly, to understand the motives of the Other on his or her own terms. At the same time, I’m disturbed by all this trauma talk. First, it renders the Tsarnaevs as victims in a crime they perpetrated and therefore robbing the real victims of their victimhood. I’ve read many reader comments , often disturbing, expressing outrage at articles that normalize the Tsarnaevs. I don’t agree, but I begrudgingly understand their anger. Second, by placing trauma at the core of Chechen identity you inherently risk, as Sarah Kendzior writes, “treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence.” You may humanize the Tsarnaevs, but you nevertheless erase their complexity. But giving trauma explanatory power for the Tsarnaevs’ crimes does more. It reduces Chechen identity writ large to the materialization of the mythic suffering and violent duplex, thus rendering Checheness to a perpetual state of abnormality.