Boston Reflection: The College Connection

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  • May 1st, 2013

The manhunt is over.
One culprit is dead, the other in custody. The tragedy has sunk in, and the Boston bombings have faded into a haunting nightmare.

Now that the panic has ended, the questions begin. America wants to know who could be capable of committing such a horrifying act of terrorism. Not their names; we know what to call them. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two brothers from Chechnya, Russia; two immigrants from a stable family who seemingly assimilated easily into American life since arriving in 2002.

Despite the facts, no one really knows who they are. Investigators have interrogated friends, family, anyone who might be able to offer insight as to what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to organize such a brutal attack.

According to friends of the Tsarnaev family, the older brother, Tamerlan, was the leader. Tamerlan was the oldest of four siblings, and has been described as more reserved than his younger brother. Investigators believe that Tamerlan was radicalized on recent trips home.

In 2011, Russia asked the FBI to interview Tamerlan based on information that suggested that Tamerlan was a follower of radical Islam. The investigation is ongoing.

In a way, Tamerlan’s story fits the profile of a young immigrant failing to assimilate and lashing out against American culture.

It is Dzhokhar whose story continues to shock friends, family, and the entire nation. Friends described Dzhokhar as an amicable college student with a large group of friends and a knack for cracking jokes.

Dzhokhar was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, where he lived in the dorms and even volunteered at an after school program for children with Down syndrome and autism. In the days before and after the attack, Dzhokhar was working out in the school gym and playing intramural soccer with friends; he was even seen at a party on Friday night.

Dzhokhar was indistinguishable from any ordinary American college student.

To attempt to understand what motivated Dzhokhar to participate in such a heinous crime is futile. But the tragedy raises other questions that are worth pondering.

It forces one to wonder what kind of a society creates an environment in which a young man can live a normal college life and at the same time, plan a national act of terrorism without even raising suspicions.

As a college student, it makes me afraid. I don’t live in fear that my neighbors are building bombs; such terror is irrational and useless. Rather, I fear for the culture we’re living in, a culture in which even Dzhokhar’s closest friends didn’t know him well enough to save him from the radical ideology that took over his life, whether this fear came from his older brother, his religion, or some other place entirely.

Older generations have been warning young adults about the negative effects of social networking for years. Is this its manifestation? It would be easy to blame social networking for the ambiguity of relationships among young adults.
A college student can chat with friends for hours without leaving the comfort of his or her computer screen, and Facebook continues to subconsciously rank us by a constant count of friends, likes, and shares, rather than by the quality of our relationships.

We post the intimate details of our lives on the Internet, but there is no one to judge whether what we share is an accurate reflection of our true selves.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used Twitter like any other twenty-two year old, using his account to tweet rap lyrics and comments about girls.

But although he used social media as a means of expressing himself, Dzhokhar was by no means isolated by a dependence on the Internet. Dzhokhar’s involvement as co-captain of the wrestling team and an intramural soccer player eliminate him from such a profile.

While social media may dilute our relationships, it doesn’t prevent us from making real ones, as long as it’s used in moderation.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn’t a social outcast or a pariah. He had friends. How they overlooked his struggle is the real difficulty to comprehend. But maybe it’s not that Dzohkar’s friends overlooked the compulsion that overcame him in the months before the attacks, but rather that Dzohkar felt the need to hide these feelings from his friends in the first place.

The reason for the shock that Dzohkar’s friends felt upon discovering that he was responsible for the murders was that they couldn’t imagine someone so normal and adapted to American life committing an act of terrorism.

So if Dzhokhar had acted less normal, less American, would that have made it easier to believe? The problem, then, is the American idealization of ‘normal.’

We yearn to believe that no typical American man or woman could be a serial killer, a terrorist, a mass murderer. Mental illness and radical ideologies aren’t topics that Americans discuss with friends for fear of being labeled as such. But in consequence, young men and women bottle up these feelings, put on a facade of normality, and live conflicting lives that often result in outbursts and tragedy.

The motivation behind Dzhokhar’s actions will never be fully understood. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to America that he didn’t share these sentiments with friends, that he didn’t portray himself as a radical in the weeks before the attack.

In America, it would seem, the closer to normal, the better.

Alaina may be reached at abever@su-spectator.com

Alaina Bever

Alaina Bever is a sophomore mechanical engineering major interested in bioengineering. This is her second quarter as a staff writer for The Spectator. In her free time, Alaina enjoys running, baking and writing.


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