STANFORD, CALIFORNIA – The world, in all its tangled webs, will be read into the Boston bombing suspects.
For some, the Tsarnaev brothers are Chechen avengers, young men seared by the long war in Russia’s “southern backyard.” For Vladimir Putin and his regime, this deed of terror in an American city is, doubtless, a vindication of the iron fist with which the Russians fought their long war against Chechnya, proof of the malignancy of the Islamist menace.
Foes of immigration can be expected to offer the Tsarnaev brothers as evidence that a nation that throws its gates wide open courts this kind of calamity. One way or the other, the matter of Islamist radicalism hovers over this episode.
There are other testimonies that speak to the puzzlement of our time, to the difficulty of drawing hard lines between cultures in conflict.
A classmate who knew Dzhokar, the younger of the two brothers, from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School described him as a cool guy, a regular American kid on the wrestling team. Another classmate, Ty Barros, describes a boy who liked sports and listened to rap music and hung out with other kids in the neighborhood. Dzhokar never discussed religion and politics, this acquaintance adds. Pamela Rolon, a residential adviser in the dorm where Dzhokar lived, at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth said that the young man “studied hard and spoke English beautifully.”
The world outwits us, furrows run across it: We look for fixed identities and whole, intact worlds, and we find instead the shaking up of continents, the intermingling of peoples and ways.
For me, the earliest evidence of the foreign birth of the bombers was not their features, as we saw them in the grainy early footage, but the baseball caps — one turned backward — and the backpacks. This was Americanism as the two assailants understood it — easily available, the kind that could slip across boundaries, evade detection. American urban culture fashioned the look, but it is now the property of one and all.
We know the pattern. These assailants live on the seam between countries and cultures.
Think of Faisal Shahzad, the young Pakistani who, three years ago, sought to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He had driven his car from his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He had worked for Elizabeth Arden, and completed that all-American degree, the MBA. Neighbors recall him jogging in the evening near his home. The United States was his home and wasn’t; Pakistan, the land of his birth, was no longer home. It could no longer answer his needs.
He came to militant Islam after personal failure and disappointment. For him, the faith had become a weapon. He found it online, on the World Wide Web — that mix of modern technique and belligerent enmities.
Of all that has been said and written about this breed of “nowhere men” who have risen to war against the very messy world that forged them, the most poignant was said about the Lebanese-born terrorist, Ziad Jarrah, who is thought to have been at the controls of the plane forced down by its heroic passengers in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11: “He never missed a party in Beirut and never missed a prayer in Hamburg.”
Jarrah had been the quintessential party boy in Lebanon, hip and trendy; he and his sisters were strangers to traditional Islam. The pampered boy of an affluent family was unhinged by a radical reading of the faith that he found in the storefront mosques in Hamburg. Modernity failed and unsettled Jarrah.
There are echoes of Jarrah’s story in reports about the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan. Like Jarrah, Tamerlan was in his mid-20s. He had become a legal U.S. resident in 2007; he had shown no early interest in Islam. His passion was boxing, but then Islam entered his life through the social media. Investigators found explosives and a trigger on his body after his death in a police chase.
Civilizational battles were once waged by warriors who donned the garments of different lands and spoke the languages of different worlds — the Moors on one side, the Castilians on the other. The borders were easy to see and to make out. The global landscape is different today. It is boys with baseball caps who carry death and ruin in their backpacks.
Home is neither in the lands of their birth nor in the diaspora communities where people flee the fire and the failure of tormented places. No “intel” can find and identify this unsettled breed — ordinary neighborhood types who step forth to do battle against a modernity, and an order, they had once yearned for.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.” The opinions expressed are his own.