What can we do to protect the American public from attacks like the one that occurred at the finish line of the Boston Marathon? Some have suggested increasing surveillance—more police and cameras in our nation’s cities. Others have emphasized the need for greater scrutiny of terrorist lists here and abroad. While directing our attention outwards—putting more eyes on the street—we need also to take a closer look inside the minds of the two young men who carried out the massacre.
Of all the questions raised by their attack, none has been more baffling than that of motivation: What could have driven the Tsarnaev brothers to follow such a crazy destructive and ultimately suicidal path? Though it may be different for each brother, I might have a glimpse of an answer. Many years ago, when I was 19—the age of the younger brother Dzokhar—I was recruited into a front group for the Unification Church, also called the Moonies. Within weeks, I dropped out of school, turned over my bank account, and cut myself off from family and friends. I was prepared to maim, murder, and even die in the name of the group. One night, burnt out and exhausted, I fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a tractor-trailer, which allowed my family to stage a rescue. Outraged and feeling violated, I set out to help others who had been affected by destructive groups. Over the past 36 years of counseling individuals, I have witnessed transformations as radical as my own, in some cases even more so, that have resulted in the loss of career, self-esteem, relationships, and sometimes lives. I try to restore my client’s previous identity, what I call their authentic self. I begin by educating them about ‘undue influence.’ People have heard the words ‘brainwashing’ and ‘mind control.’ Though not as glamorous, undue influence places the phenomenon into the broader realm of everyday human experience. Borrowed from the law, it refers to the mental, moral, or even physical domination that deprives a person of independent judgment and substitutes another person or group’s objectives for his or her own. It is often characterized by superior physical, mental, or social power—due to authority, position or relationship—in relation to the person being influenced.
What does this have to do with the Tsarnaev brothers? By many accounts, the younger Dzokhar was a nice, normal teen with a taste for drugs, weed, and social media. (He tweeted often—even after committing the atrocity that would ruin his own life.) He was devoted to his older brother, Tamerlan, and also intimidated by him. It is unlikely that he would have carried out the attack, let alone hatch such a plan, by himself. His parents’ divorce and departure for Russia, along with his own dislocating move to college might have conspired to make him that much more susceptible to Tamerlan’s influence. In my many years of work, I have found that the single most important variable in a person’s recruitment into a destructive group is situational—the death of a loved one, a move to a new city, divorce, the loss of a job.
The real question, it seems is what was going on in the mind of Tamerlan? Situational variables might also have played a role in his radicalization—and I hesitate to call it self-radicalization for reasons that will become apparent. Groomed for great things—his mother called him her “Hercules”—he watched his father struggle for a living rebuilding cars in the backyard of a rug store. A gifted and promising boxer, he lost (some say unfairly) an important match and abandoned the sport altogether. These losses combined with what appear to be darker personality traits—he has been described as mean-spirited and violent—could have led to a kind of them-against-us mentality. That mindset may have been fanned during his six-month trip to Russia. What exactly happened during that trip is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Whether or not he joined a radical group, he was, in my opinion, almost surely influenced by others—possibly by people who he saw as authority figures. He visited a radical mosque, and also the Chechen city of Makhachkala, a center of bomb-making activity. Presumably, he spent time with his mother, who encouraged his conversion to a radical branch of Islam while she was still in Boston. Six months can be a very long time—my radicalization occurred in a matter of weeks. Back in the States, the Internet may have added fuel to the sparks of radicalism already burning in Tamerlan’s mind.
Getting inside the minds of the Tsarnaev brothers, I do not mean to justify their crimes. My point is to use them as educational examples: to show how the human mind is malleable and may be influenced to do evil—as social psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram pointed out decades ago—as well as good. The rescue of three women held captive for the past ten years in a house just outside of Cleveland calls to mind the cases of Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart. Though it is not clear whether these three women were indoctrinated, there are countless examples of undue influence occurring in intimate settings as well as in large-scale groups or cults. In my own practice, I have seen a steep rise in the number of cases of small groups (or harems) and even cults of two, like the Tsarnaev brothers. My point then is to use them as a cautionary tale—to help protect Americans from future terrorist attacks by educating them about the dangers of undue influence. Towards that end, I would like to recommend the following somewhat radical steps.
Let Dzokhar see friends. In their quest to understand what happened, and in this way prevent future attacks, the government must turn him into an ally. Allowing him to see certain friends and family members might activate his authentic self. Visits from Muslim clerics might help him see that his actions were in complete contrast with the tenets of Islam and that he was destructively influenced by his brother. Ultimately he might recant his role in the bombing, which could send a powerful message.
Invite ex-terrorists to speak in high schools and college campuses. Ex-jihadis Maajid Nawaz of the Quillian Foundation and Masoud Bansidr of ex-MeK are already doing this, countering the narrative that pits Islam against evil Americans and Jews. Who can better tell the story of how they were recruited and indoctrinated, their authentic selves suppressed in favor of a terrorist cult identity, than an ex-terrorist?
Train Muslim psychologists, psychologists and social workers to recognize the signs of undue influence, sudden personality changes, and outright radicalization. Offer families and friends a safe place to turn for help when they witness a radical personality change in a loved one.
Design creative educational campaigns that reach deeply into our culture to help us know the difference between healthy and unhealthy influences. High schools put on media literacy courses that educate young people about the way T.V. and the Internet toy with their minds. Why not do something similar with actual relationships?
Such initiatives could do more to prevent terrorism than all of the surveillance cameras and watch lists we can concoct. Who will need pictures of terrorists fleeing a scene if people are no longer turning to terrorism?