Monday, April 22, 2013

The Brothers Tsarnaev


One of a psychologist's jobs is to be an expert at identifying uncertainty, on knowing that things are, at times, precisely unclear. Today, I turned down a CNN interview request. They asked me to comment, in a four minute session, on the "dynamics of the relationship" of the Tsarnaev brothers. I spoke with the producer about the ethics of a psychologist talking about the nuances of a relationship only known through the media. It is hard enough to know what's going on with the brothers I do know. 

Beyond the horror, an important and reasonable question seems to haunt the public and the media. We all know that people do not willingly choose a bad position to replace a better one. People make choices that in some manner reflect what they believe will enhance their position even if it is hard for an outside observer to see how this is the case. 

So what happened with these brothers?  It appears that the younger brother was in good standing in at least some of his significant communities. The older brother seems to be more marginal, at least as the media portrays him. So why did the younger brother follow? Why is it that if I jump off a bridge, I am certain that my younger brother will not follow me? Part of an answer must be that the younger Tsarnaev had something to gain, and that unless he was utterly coerced, he believed that in some way, in his world, he would significantly enhance his standing. This is independent from how it might appear to the casual observer.   But right now, we are all casual observers. 


  1. From what is mentioned in the media it appears that Tamer Tsarneav ( the older brother) was capable of greatly influencing those around him. His younger brother looked up to him.
    I think both brothers were somehow “brainwashed” by terrorist websites that espouse terrorist ideals and popularize terrorism as an alleged form of payback for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They saw themselves as heroes not as terrorists.
    Any human being can be made to do anything provided you brainwash them adequately.
    At least that’s what I think

    Continuation here :

    1. Jammal, thanks for your comment and for your interesting blog. You suggest that Tamar was capable of strongly influencing his bother and you also point out that from the perspective of the brothers they were acting as heroes. Certainly, if they saw themselves as such it would imply a potential status gain. “Brainwashing”, however, is an evocative but problematic concept. Under any reasonable circumstance, actually under any circumstance, a person’s sense of themselves and their world is not going to be “wiped clean” and then replaced by something else. But there is something about indoctrination that may account for the behavior of the Tsameav brothers. In some way, assuming that these brothers did not always have the intention of monsters, they were subject to influence, more or less voluntarily or more or less under coercion. Some of what they may have acquired must have fit their possible ways of thinking and acting. Influence can come from family, friends or the wider community of religion, culture and society, but it probably supports some existing belief and grievance. A world-view can be self-invented, but I suspect, not in this case. Something must have provided them with reason enough to see their actions as increasing their status. Given the obscenity of what they did, it is also reasonable to suggest that whatever gave them reason enough did not come with flexible alternatives. This is what I mean by indoctrination. When you suggest “brainwashing”, I wonder what created conditions that would allow a dogma, an indoctrination to take hold. A person that finds their life and community already good enough is probably not a candidate for “brainwashing”.

      I try to address some of this in the earlier section, “On Indoctrination.” My formulation is certainly not adequate.