The story of these two brothers is gradually coming out. Tamerlan was an accomplished amateur boxer, was married and had a young daughter. It is reported that he turned to radical Islam over the past few years – we do not know exactly why. He apparently was a loner.
In contrast, Dzhokhar was reportedly an outgoing individual. His friends and classmates from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and neighbors described him as a friendly and successful person. He did well academically, winning a college scholarship from the City of Cambridge, was a star of the wrestling team, and was quite gregarious and sociable. He was enrolled as a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. In short, he appeared to be everything one would admire in young man and the sort of individual one would be pleased to have as a friend to one’s relatives of the same age.
How could an individual who spent his adolescence successfully integrating into a healthy environment in the Unites States resort to violence, mass murder and terrorism?
Reportedly, Dzhokhar was under the influence of his brother Tamerlan, seven years his elder. Even so, how could an individual wantonly murder and maim innocent individuals in the community around him?
Dzokhar Tzaranaev’s case is so chilling precisely because he appeared so normal and well adapted.
Perhaps we should not be so surprised.
The Milgram experiment (Milgram, Stanley (1963) "Behavioral Study of Obedience." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–8) conducted more than fifty years ago demonstrated how volunteers when ordered by an authority figure to do so, repeatedly delivered shocks (or so they thought) of ever higher voltages to the subject of the experiment who was hidden behind a screen. The supposed subject (actually part of the research team) screamed in pain as the supposed shocks were delivered; volunteers continued delivering shocks even past the point when the subject stopped responding.
The citizens of Germany, the heart of European culture, slaughtered millions when Germany was under Nazi rule.
Humanity, decency and empathy are a thin veil that an individual can pierce when an authority figure commands it and/or when an individual subscribes to an ideology.
What can society do to protect itself?
First, we can attempt to teach our children to be empathetic, question authority and choose rational evidence based analysis over ideology. Secondly, we can attempt rationally to design means to prevent individuals from being able to commit violence and murder.
Unfortunately, the prevailing forces in this country tend to venerate ideology over rationality. A rational approach to preventing violence and murder would be first to attempt to prevent those individuals who are unstable or inclined to violence from acquiring the means of harming of others. However, here ideology triumphs over rationality. The cowardly US Senate last week failed to pass a minimal law that would mandate background checks to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms.
A rational approach to reducing violence would involve the strict regulation of guns, registration of all firearms, background checks, mandatory safety training, and banning weapons with large magazines and the ability to fire rapidly. Purchase of explosives would be limited to licensed professionals. All explosives would contain taggants so that they can be traced.
The evidence shows that the greater the availability of guns the greater the amount of gun violence and that laws controlling the availability of weapons work well. For example, in 1996 in response to a mass shooting the conservative government of John Howard in Australia enacted comprehensive gun control measures. Since then there have been no more mass shootings and the annual number of gun deaths, in a prompt and sustained manner, fell by approximately one-half.
In the name of public safety in the US we apply tight controls and record keeping requirements on the purchase of drugs, automobile ownership, and the issuance of driver’s licenses. In the wake of 9/11 we gave the government unprecedented power to spy on its own citizens. In the past 30 years, approximately 3,000 Americans have died in terrorist attacks while 900,000 American civilians have died of gunshots. Rational and effective control on the availability of weapons would likely save the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens over the next 30 years. The cost - a slight inconvenience to law-abiding gun owners. The choice is so clear that only an irrational ideologue, or cowardly politician, could disagree.
Unfortunately, the decaying – but still powerful – remnants of the Republican party seem bent on promoting mindless ideology. These Republicans, along with a few contemptible Democrats, say no to the most minimal restrictions on gun ownership and access to explosives. These politicians act to enable the murderers and terrorists they claim to hate.
The Boston marathon bombings are chilling not only because some of our fellow citizens and residents chose to murder and maim the innocents around them, but also because many of our politicians appear devoted to ensuring that such murders and maimings will continue.