I have a 19 year old son. If you took a random survey of his friends I don’t think they would describe him much differently from the character sketch offered by the shocked friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, as I write this, is the subject of a massive manhunt in a shut-down Boston. Those who know Dzhokhar paint him as friendly, well-adjusted, laid-back, sociable, smart, a good student. And all the while, he and his brother were allegedly planning mass murder. His mother insists that the police must have their facts wrong. “This is a set up” she tells CNN. “If there was anyone who would know [he was planning an attack] it would be me. He would never hide it from me.” The woman is not delusional–she’s a mother in denial. If it turned out I had raised two killers, I would be in denial, too. And if I ever could get past that wall of “NO! It can’t be!” in my mind and my heart, I would spend every moment replaying the past, trying to figure out what happened, where it all went wrong, where I went wrong as a mother.
But identity is slippery, and not always evident to the people who think they know someone best. My mother likes to say that we raise our children and then wind up being no more than spectators with little influence over their lives. We cannot dictate their fate, much less exert control over the choices they make. We root for them, celebrate their successes, lament the difficulties they face and hope they arrive at reasonable decisions. But we do all of this from the sidelines.
I’m sure the forensic psychologists will soon step in with their educated perspectives. What “turned” a boy with so much promise? My amateur analysis is that the suspected Boston bombers were two young men with wholly different motivations. The older one was a sociopath who cloaked his contempt for others in a radical ideology. The younger was a malleable follower with psychological vulnerabilities who was manipulated by his brother. He was salvageable. To use a Columbine analogy, the Boston bombers were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold–a sociopath and a troubled teen–but raised in the same family. Over the coming weeks, and probably years, terrorism experts will pour over minutiae of DzhokharTsareva’s family life. No doubt we will learn about family feuds, rivalries and jealousies, the harrowing history of their early years in a troubled region of the world, their parents’ psychological scars. But in the end we may never be able to fathom what led Dzhokvar to sling a bomb-laden backpack jauntily over one shoulder and strut through the crowds at the Boston Marathon–behind his big brother.
It’s a mother’s worst nightmare.