Banality Of Evil In An American Tragedy

Book review: The Brothersby Masha Gessen (Amazon / Book Depository)

This American Life is one of my all-time favorite radio shows. But since they’re so prolific and have been around for so long, I’m always eons behind on episodes, so I tend to skip through the archives looking for something interesting. That’s how I landed on a 2014 episode, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” about an incident I’d never heard of, and that’s confoundingly intriguing.

The story concerns Ibragim Todashev, an acquaintance of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the brothers responsible for bombing the Boston marathon. Living in Orlando when that happened, Todashev had become friendly with Tsarnaev through their shared pastime of boxing. In May 2013, a month after the bombings, an FBI agent shot Todashev seven times in his apartment, killing him while he was writing a confession about his and Tamerlan’s involvement in a triple homicide in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 2011. Todashev’s girlfriend was deported, ostensibly for talking to a reporter. Confused? This barely grazes the tip of the iceberg of this strange story. I highly recommend the episode.

Curiosity piqued, I wanted to know more about the Todashev incident and its context, leading me to an article by Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen. If you read about current affairs and commentary on Russian politics, you’re sure to have encountered her sharp writing and reporting. The article was excerpted from The Brothers, her 2015 account of the lead-up to the Boston bombing, so I picked up the book.

Gessen explains in a brief introduction that this is about the Tsernaevs, their family’s background, and the tragedy’s aftermath for those connected to them, who she calls “invisible victims”. Apparently I wasn’t alone in missing the Todashev story, and he’s not the only casualty of the investigation and some questionable FBI tactics detailed here.

The story I was trying to tell was not one of big conspiracies or even giant examples of injustice. The people in key roles in this story are few, the ideas they hold are uncomplicated, and the plans they conjure are anything but far-reaching. It was the hardest and most frightening kind of story to believe.

So this story isn’t intended to be about the victims or the bombing itself. I tried to consider it based on that, even if it seemed incomplete, only containing the mention of one victim’s name in the entire book – that of Sean Collier, the MIT security guard killed during the Tsarnaevs’ escape spree through Watertown.

The Brothers begins with the Tsarnaev parents, Zubeidat and Anzor, meeting in bleak-sounding Dagestan, neighbor to their ethnically native Chechnya, and beginning a life together that involved extensive moving through the Caucasus and Russia, willingly and otherwise, searching somewhere they belonged or were safe.

This is a complicated issue that becomes an integral theme throughout the book, and seemingly a major contributor to their sons’ actions. Ideas of fractured identity, politics of ethnicity, classism, the murky intersections of truth and embellishment, aspirations for status and education, the reality of accepting asylum and being immigrants in a land completely foreign to the many they’d already known before. It’s intricate and complicated, like many stories from residents and refugees of the former USSR states. It’s not an excuse, but it paints a picture that begins to provide an explanation, or what the Tsarnaevs thought was one.

Eventually they make it to Boston and try to pave the way for their children, especially their eldest son Tamerlan, to get educated and have promising careers. The role of the family’s Muslim faith is strangely unclear – they don’t appear to be particularly devout, but as I understood it, the mother, Zubeidat, eventually turned more towards religion.

Although I’m sure, as Gessen writes in her afterword, that many were reluctant to speak with her (and after listening to the episode I mentioned, I can’t blame them) it still feels like there are massive, crucial chunks of the Tsernaevs’ backgrounds and lives missing, that could’ve been better filled in by those close to them. There’s very little about Tamerlan’s wife Katherine Russell, called Karima after her conversion to Islam, for example, and that seems like a significant missing piece.

Gessen does her homework admirably, traveling to Makhachkala in Dagestan, where some of the family’s roots lay, and where Tamerlan seemed to grow more acquainted with extremist ideas and rhetoric. There she meets with Mohammed Gadzhiev, the leader of the Union of the Just, a bitter, dangerous group associated with radicalism, to ask him what transpired during Tamerlan’s visit.

Gadzhiev found his knowledge of the Koran cursory at best. He appreciated that Tamerlan claimed being a Muslim as his primary identity, but criticized him for vague statements and uncertain ideas…Tamerlan stood out in Makhachkala. Some days he wore a long Arabic-style shirt of the sort rarely seen in Dagestan, slicked his hair back with peanut oil, and lined his eyes with kohl.

You can imagine how that went over back in the US.

Aside from his tweets, there’s little to be heard from younger brother Dzhokar, a mere teenager at the time of the bombing, and half of what Tamerlan revealed about himself seems like embellishment. Although some in-depth detail of their lives and activities during their time in the US is presented, so much just seems speculation or missing.

This book isn’t an effort to humanize these terrorists, but it succeeds in clarifying their backgrounds, especially in terms of their national identities – or lack thereof, and confusion about the same. It shows how two young immigrants from a troubled region attained coveted legal status in America, chances at higher education, friends and community, then blew it by buying into misguided ideology and now one is dead and the other on death row.

But there didn’t feel like quite enough information here to constitute a full portrayal, and the why of it all is lacking too. Even some cursory Google searches turn up what seem like important facts that didn’t make it into the book – like Tamerlan being banned from a Boston mosque for aggressively shouting and interrupting sermons. Tamerlan’s wife, who as mentioned gets minimal page space, is another curious absence.

Gessen remains an exquisite writer (aside from a few odd repetitions of phrasing on the same page that should’ve been caught by an editor) who I’ll always look to for enlightening reportage on Russia-related topics. Maybe the scope of this investigation and its place in the war on terror was too much to tackle in a relatively short volume. It’s still a compelling read, but not the whole story by any means.

Her writing on the painful, often psychological, difficulties of immigration is a highlight:

You never talk about the pain of dislocation. You do not describe the way color drains out of everyday life when nothing is familiar, how the texture of living seems to disappear. You breathe not a word of no longer knowing who you are, where you are going, with whom, and why – and the unique existential dread of that condition.

Gessen goes on to explain that most immigrants come out the other side of this confusion and pain, and adapt to their new home. The Tsarnaevs didn’t really, despite support from extended family and helpful people they met in Boston. They’d had big dreams and when they didn’t achieve them as quickly as they wanted, they grew disillusioned and despondent.

As for the brothers themselves, theirs remains a small story, in which nothing extraordinary happens – or, rather, no extraordinary event is necessary to explain what happened. One had only to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many people are, to never feel that one belongs, to see every opportunity, even those that seem within reach, pass one by – until the opportunity to be somebody finally, almost accidentally, presents itself. This is where the small story of the Tsarnaevs joins the large story of the War on Terror.

Gessen mentions reading Hannah Arendt in her acknowledgments, and this whole story certainly seems a prime example of the banality of evil. Maybe that was the whole point: there is no wild evil, no significant turning point. There’s only apathy, disappointment, and an underlying, banal evil that allowed streamable radical rhetoric to find fertile ground. Gessen tells a detailed and at times illuminating part of this story, but much of it remains a blank. 3.5/5

The Brothers: The Road to An American Tragedy
by Masha Gessen
published April 7, 2015 

Amazon / Book Depository


12 thoughts on “Banality Of Evil In An American Tragedy

Add yours

  1. I’m a big fan of This American Life and Ira Glass. You’ve reminded me to plow through his archives.

    This book intrigues me because I know so little about these brothers and their motives. I should as they’ve altered our behaviors so radically. Even with its shortcomings, it’s more than what I know.

    Thank you for featuring this story and providing your typically relevant insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe I was a little harsh on it, just because the episode got me curious so reading a lot of articles and realizing how much wasn’t included in the book. But she chose a narrow and streamlined focus for it, it’s still very good for what it covers. She’s an excellent and super smart journalist, and it’s very much worth the read.

      Isn’t that show the best…I’m also impressed that they’ve been on the air for so long and remain so consistently good. It’s really fun to comb through their back archives, so many amazing stories in there!


    1. She really is, I love her writing. I’ve read her book on Putin, it was a good one. I’ve been wanting to tackle The Future is History but I haven’t felt quite up to it yet, have you read that one?


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