Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow is no longer calling herself “Karima Tsarnaeva.” She is Katherine Russell again. Karima/Katherine is reportedly drifting away from the way of life she accepted when she converted to Islam and married the Boston Bomber, the terrorist killed by police last April following the bombings that left three dead and wounded as many as 264 others gathered near the Boston Marathon finish line. Her relatives and friends say Katherine did not know anything about the terrorist attacks, but investigators indicate that she—or someone using her computer—had saved materials on bomb making and visited jihadist websites. Other evidence, which may link her to the bombings, is under review. She is cooperating with the investigation.
These days, Katherine is said to be wearing nail polish and eating fast food again, things forbidden to her when she converted. Tamerlan sometimes flew into rages, calling her “prostitute” and “slut” for not dressing in accordance with Islamic tradition. Katherine had dated Tamerlan from 2007 to 2010, while she was attending Suffolk University in Boston. She converted to Islam and started wearing an hijab in 2008. In 2010, carrying Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s child, Katherine called a mosque in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to arrange their wedding. They were wed in a 15-minute ceremony on June 21, 2010. By some accounts, she and Tamerlan lived for a time with her middle-class parents in Rhode Island, where she grew up. Later she, the couple’s daughter, and the two Tsarnaev brothers lived in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, though the younger brother, Dzhokhar, spent much of his time at a University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth dormitory.
Her friends seemed puzzled by her conversion. One family friend said that Katherine had been “just your average all-American girl.” She was described as “happy-go-lucky” and “not particularly religious.” The daughter of an emergency-room doctor and a nurse, Katherine attended North Kingston High School and graduated at the top of her class. Her senior yearbook lists her plans as attending college and joining the Peace Corps. After her marriage to Tamerlan, Karima and her new family received welfare benefits for a time. She began working as much as 78 hours per week as a home healthcare aide to support them. Tamerlan was unemployed.
Following the bombings and the death of her husband, Katherine moved back to her family’s Rhode Island home, and her parents released a statement:
Our daughter has lost her husband today, the father of her child. We cannot begin to comprehend how this horrible tragedy occurred. In the aftermath of the Patriot’s [sic] Day horror, we know that we never really knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Our hearts are sickened by the knowledge of the horror he has inflicted.
Indeed, the Russells never knew Tsarnaev. Described in some media accounts as “nominal Christians,” they could perhaps not comprehend the motivations of a man like Tamerlan Tsarnaev because of willful ignorance or a shallow sense of identity. The Russells appear to have been fairly typical post-Americans, deracinated people with no religion to speak of, accepting all the liberal assumptions of the consumerist, hyperindividualist world of today’s global village. Katherine Russell became Karima Tsarnaeva, assimilating to the Muslim culture and identity of her husband, abandoning her own nominal religion and amorphous identity apparently without any protest from her family. The Russells yielded to Tsarnaev’s “diversity,” accommodating themselves to the alien with no understanding of what the consequences might be.
This is the way of living that the best and brightest managers of the world empire centered in Washington, D.C., expect all immigrants—and the rest of us—to accept and assimilate to. When our “conservatives,” who largely accept mass immigration from all corners of the globe, encompassing all races, religions, and ethnic groups, demand “assimilation,” perhaps we should ask, Assimilation to what? It’s very likely that Katherine Russell and her bewildered parents were, in their way, as disoriented by a postmodern world without boundaries or fixed identities as the Tsarnaevs were, though the brothers’ reaction to “American culture” was not surrender but—not unpredictably, especially for Muslims—revulsion and violent backlash.
The younger Tsarnaev brother seemed to have assimilated successfully to globalist norms. Born in 1993 in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgizia (Kyrgyzstan), the easygoing Dzhokhar had come to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. He became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012. He was a popular student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where he was captain of the school’s wrestling team. Dzhokhar sometimes worked as a lifeguard at Harvard University. Some of his high-school and college friends have described him as a “normal” American boy who smoked pot and listened to rap music. They were shocked by his involvement in the Boston bombings. (Dzhokhar survived several wounds in the brothers’ clash with police after the Boston Marathon bombing and was captured. He awaits trial.) One of his school friends described Dzhokhar as “not ‘them.’ He was ‘us.’ He was Cambridge.” No one thought of him as foreign. But the signs of something else stirring in the psyche of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were there if anyone had cared—or had the language skills—to notice.
Dzhokhar enrolled at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth as a marine-biology major in 2011, the city of Cambridge awarding him with a $2,500 scholarship that year. He subsequently contacted a UMass-Dartmouth professor who taught a class on the history of the Chechens, expressing interest in the course. (His father, Anzor, is Chechen; his mother, Zubeidat, is Avar, another of the Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus.) Dzhokhar registered on the Russian-language social-networking site VKontakte, describing his “world view” as “Islam,” though his personal priorities remained “career and money.” Dzhokhar began visiting Islamic websites, including some with videos of the Syrian civil war and others advocating Chechen independence. On the day before the Boston bombings, Dzhokhar posted a verse from the Koran often cited by jihadist clerics on his Twitter feed.
Dzhokhar’s interest in academics declined as his interest in Islam and his Chechen heritage escalated: By the time of the bombing attacks, he was failing academically, saddled with thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, and not working. He was reportedly selling marijuana. Dzhokhar’s personal conflict—budding jihadist or assimilated pot dealer—seems to have been resolved by his devotion and loyalty to his big brother, Tamerlan. Some observers have tried to explain the relationship as the psychological dependence of the weaker sibling on the stronger (Tamerlan’s boxing coach once described Dzhokhar as “like a puppy dog, following his older brother”), but it may have been something more, the call of blood to blood and to the Caucasian tradition of obedience to the elder male, be it father or, in the father’s absence, the elder brother.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was seven years older than his younger brother. He was born in 1986 in Kalmykia, at the time an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. A picture of baby Tamerlan with his parents and an uncle reveals nothing of the identity crisis that would soon engulf the Soviet Union: The parents are secular in appearance, the father unbearded; the mother wears a dress with no head scarf; the uncle is in a typical Soviet officer’s uniform of the period. The Soviet brand of globalization was world communist revolution. Like the liberal variety that had gradually consumed America from the inside out during the Cold War, it used a denatured form of a base culture (Russian) in an attempt to neutralize both the dominant culture and the “assimilated” cultures of the Soviet empire’s peoples. The initial aim had been to create a “new Soviet man” and a new identity in what American neoconservatives would later call a “universal nation.” The collapse of the Soviet Union was brought on, in part, by the failure of the Soviet experiment and the consequent reassertion of particular national and religious identities across the former Soviet empire. In Russia, the bellicose Chechens fought for territorial independence. An Islamic identity was revived among the historically Islamic peoples of the North Caucasus. Today, the ongoing guerilla insurgency in the Russian North Caucasus is ideologically dominated by Islam. The North Caucasus insurgents’ war aim is nothing less than the creation of a “Caucasus Emirate.”
The story of the Tsarnaevs parallels the identity-based struggles of the North Caucasus. As in the North Caucasus, blood ties and militant faith proved stronger than a shallow assimilation.
Tamerlan was old enough to absorb more of the folkways and modes of thinking of the North Caucasus than his younger brother, but young enough to experience the identity crisis that followed the culture shock of his family’s emigration from Dagestan in Russia to Massachusetts in 2002. In March 2007, the family was granted permanent U.S. residency, but adjustment to the new environment proved difficult. The secular Anzor, who (according to some accounts) had been a law-enforcement officer in Russia, was working as an unlicensed mechanic, having failed at operating a collection bureau. His wife, Zubeidat, who trained to be a cosmetologist, was increasingly drawn to her traditional religion. She eventually refused to work in a business that served men. (The parents eventually divorced; both went back to Dagestan.) Tamerlan seemed to be living the life of a Chechen tough guy. He was an accomplished boxer, winning the New England Golden Gloves heavyweight championship in 2009 and 2010 and aspiring to box for the United States in the Olympics. He dressed the part (leather pants, alligator-skin boots) and was arrogant, hotheaded, and violent: Tamerlan slapped around a girlfriend, Nadine Ascencao (she called the police, and he was arrested, but never prosecuted), who also claimed that, in 2006-09, Tamerlan, influenced by Islamic videos and increasingly alienated from American life, tried to “brainwash” her. He insisted that she convert to Islam, change her dress (she eventually wore a hijab), associate only with Muslims and not “slutty” girls, and “hate America like he did.” Tamerlan began attending the mosque of the Islamic Society of Boston, stopped smoking and drinking, and told The Comment, a magazine published by the Boston University College of Communications, that although he aspired to box on the U.S. Olympic team, he did not have any American friends and did not “understand” Americans. “There are no values any more,” he complained. “People can’t control themselves.”
Tamerlan was also influenced by an Armenian-Ukrainian convert known as “Misha,” whom he met at his mosque. According to press accounts, Misha reinforced the lessons Tamerlan learned at the mosque and via Islamic websites. Anzor seemed wary of Misha, but Zubeidat approved and encouraged her son’s religious turn. Some press accounts assert that Tamerlan’s “radicalization” was the result of personal disappointments (he lost a controversial decision in the first round of the U.S. Golden Gloves Nationals in May 2009, and never earned U.S. citizenship, which subsequently barred him from the 2010 national tournament after a rules change) or because Americans were not welcoming enough, but the available evidence suggests another story: Tamerlan was in the process of being “radicalized” well before his loss at the 2009 national tournament. Nor did he become an “Islamist” during a trip to Dagestan and Chechnya in 2012. Russian security officials had alerted the FBI to Tamerlan’s contacts with suspected jihadists in 2011.
The “radicalization” process took place in the United States.
Tamerlan’s “assimilated” brother was only superficially “one of us,” but given the tenuous nature of American identity under the dominant liberal ethos, and the increasingly distant and alien peoples the “universal nation” is taking in, that superficiality was probably all that could have been transferred to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The post-Americans the Tsarnaevs encountered were more than accommodating, living out liberalism’s universal nation/multicultural ideology to the letter—which likely earned the contempt of the Tsarnaevs. Is it any surprise that immigrants encountering the antiworld of postmodern “culture” often fall back on more certain and substantial identities based on the strongest ties human beings share—blood and religious faith? That both men looked back to their ancestral homeland, Chechnya, as a touchstone of identity, even though the family had never lived there? That a militant religion could provide them with a sense of belonging and purpose?
The 2011 Waltham, Massachusetts, murders of three men, one a sometime friend of Tamerlan’s, may have been a foreshadowing. On September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the three men had their throats cut with such force that they were nearly decapitated. Cash and marijuana were scattered over the victims’ bodies. Apparently, robbery was not the motive for the killings: $5,000 was left at the gruesome scene of the crime. One investigator said that the murder was “right out of an al Qaeda training video.” Since there was no evidence of forced entry, law-enforcement sources assumed that the victims knew the killers. The three victims—Erik Weissman, Raphael Teken, and Brendan Mess—were Jewish. Mess had been a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and had trained at the same martial arts/boxing gym as Tamerlan. Some reports stated that Mess had at one time been Tsarnaev’s roommate. Those who knew both men thought it strange that Tsarnaev did not turn up at Mess’s funeral. Cellphone records placed the Tsarnaevs close to the scene on the day of the killings, and anonymous law-enforcement sources told reporters that certain forensic evidence pointed to the Tsarnaevs’ presence. So far, no charges have been brought against the surviving brother in connection with the murders.
Fantasy America is a wondrous place, not a country in the conventional sense at all, where a magical process of “assimilation” transforms Somalis, Chechens, Mexicans, Chinese, Nigerians, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims—indeed, people of any race, nationality, or religion—into “us.” There are no rigorous requirements, no rigid standards for this transformation that apparently takes place by the mystical mechanisms of TV, movies, the internet, and such magical items of clothing as expensive sneakers and cheap T-shirts, as well as civic rituals like voting or membership in the military priesthood. Even the once-sacred neoconservative/liberal notion of adherence to abstract propositions (“freedom,” “democracy,” “equality”) as a requirement for membership in the gigantic Sam’s Club that is postmodern America seems to have atrophied in an orgy of self-congratulation that is reflected in the childish need to believe that everyone, everywhere, is at least potentially an “American.”
“American” has become a vacuous nonidentity drained of content, context, and meaning. Ending mass immigration is the first and necessary step toward reviving a genuine sense of American identity. But if we fail to assimilate our own people, that identity will continue to lack all content and context.