For all the controversy surrounding the cover shot that went with Rolling Stone's article on the Boston Bomber (addressed by RS contributor and Boston native Matt Taibbi here, noting, among other things, that the New York Times used the same photo to little fanfare), the article itself is quite good. It's one of few attempts I've seen to really get inside the mind and motivation of a murderer, while still acknowledging the monstrosity of his actions.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two bombers, survived the raid that killed his older brother Tamerlan. The article interviews friends of the family, school acquaintances of Jahar (as Dzhokhar called himself in America), and details the brothers' descent from well-liked high school athletes to radical terrorists. It's a transformation that no one who knew the brothers saw coming. The description of Jahar given by his friends is "a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs."
But, as is often the case, hindsight is 20/20, and, upon reflection, a few crack emerged in the Tsaraev brothers' facade. A friend of Jahar's recalls talking to him about 9/11, and when asking his view, Jahar said, "You won't like my answer," and then quickly changed the subject. In Tamerlan, the inclination toward radicalism was more readily apparent. In the period before the bombing, he had begun to embrace a strict form of Islam, and Jahar and the boys' mother soon followed suit. Tamerlan, who once aspired to be an Olympic boxer, had fallen on hard times shortly before the bombing, poor and with his new marriage struggling. Jahar wasn't doing too well either. Though he had gotten into UMass on a scholarship, he was struggling to keep up in his classes.
The relationship between the two brothers is what most interests me about this case. I've studied pair or team killers before, and there's usually a dominant partner and a willing accomplice. It appears Tamerlan was the dominant partner, even from the time they were young. Their mother, family friends say, favored Tamerlan, calling him "Hercules" due to his athletic strength. All the kids in the neighborhood, especially Jahar, seemed to idolize him. Jahar, by contrast, was remembered as a "calm, compliant" child and alternately "smooth as fuck" and "humble" teenager. He started boxing like his brother, but soon moved into wrestling, which his friends interviewed in the article say is a common pastime among Chechen boys.
With Tamerlan becoming more radical, not only getting into fundamentalist Islam but also conspiracy theories (he was a big fan of Alex Jones, who, oddly but predictably enough, immediately latched onto the conspiracy theory that the bombings were a CIA plot), Jahar, as he always had, followed his brother. Some of Jahar's friends, who still have a hard time believing their relaxed, pot-smoking buddy, who was always the first person they called when they needed a favor, could become Public Enemy #1 overnight, think Tamerlan brainwashed him. Tamerlan probably didn't, at least not consciously. Jahar was lost, unsure of what path to take, struggling in school, and, as he always had, looked to his older brother for guidance. Unfortunately, Tamerlan was just as lost, searching for answers, as many have before, in religion and radical ideology, and Jahar got dragged down with him. We still don't know exactly what triggered their desire to make such a grand, grotesque statement, but it happened.
One of Jahar's friends, upon reading an article where nurses at the hospital where he was staying after the raid said they were reluctant to treat him, because they didn't want to end up liking him, said, "People just have blood in their eyes." It's an eloquent, astute observation. It's the reason for the protest of Jahar on the cover of Rolling Stone, lest a photo of a murderer that isn't defaced be equated with excusing his actions. It's the reason level-headed articles like this one, which try to honestly look at the motives behind such a vicious crime, are so rare. People blinded by "blood in their eyes" only want to see the perpetrators suffer. Anything less is considered being too soft. Which is a shame, because Janet Reitman wrote an insightful piece that gets to the heart, or as close as it can, of how and why an ordinary kid can become a terrorist.