The Boston Marathon bombing raises important questions about the evolving nature of terrorist activities. As Mark Sageman suggests in his new book, Leaderless Jihad, social media now play an instrumental role in helping potential jihadists acquire the skill, motivation and materials to become terrorists. But the bombing also poses some interesting questions for psychology. People who knew the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are mystified by his transformation from an ordinary person into a terrorist who would kill innocents. As Dzhokahr’s one time roommate said, “I have had almost two weeks to think about it (Dzhokhar’s involvement) and it still makes no more sense than the day I found out it was him.” Similarly, his high school wrestling coach said, “Everyone is completely bewildered. Not one person -- not one -- said, 'Oh yeah, I knew this. I knew he used to shoot puppies in the backyard.'"
Bewilderment is sensible. Dzhokhar’s wrestling teammates in high school had voted him captain. He displayed good sportsmanship and supported his teammates’ development as wrestlers. As his coach noted, “After a match, there’s a prime opportunity to be mad, to say the ref robbed you. He just accepted what was done. If he lost a match, he’d put his arms out; ‘Well, I tried my best.’ And when he won, he’d pump his fist, both fists at head level: ‘Yeah, I won!’ But it was never anything excessive.” Similarly, his teammates say they looked up to him as a teacher and motivator. “We’d be running stairs for hours,” said Zeaed Abu-Rubieh. “Every time I’d stop, when I was thinking about leaving, he’d push me forward, physically push me. And he was strong. He’d say; ‘Go on. Run. You can do it.’ He believed in people.”
One frame of reference for understanding Dzhokhar’s transformation is to de-emphasize the role of character in shaping behavior, and to highlight instead situational forces. We focus on “states” not “traits.” The famous Milgram obedience experiment at Yale University, in which naive subjects gave electric shocks to a supposed peer (in fact an actor) for answering memory questions incorrectly, is suggestive here. The scientist in a white coat who conducts the supposed memory experiment, convinced 2/3 of his subjects to administer supposedly painful shocks despite verbal protestations from the peer/actor (In fact no shocks were administered. The shocking machine was fake).
Milgram said his experiment showed how people would obey authority figures, in this case a scientist, even it meant violating their own ethical standards or suppressing their compassionate responses. But the experiment also shows that character is labile, vulnerable to influences exercised within a situation. Ordinary people who for the most part would help people in distress, were willing to inflict pain on a peer. In studying group psychology, Freud argued that group members readily internalize the group’s leader as representing each member’s conception of what it means to be an ideal person. The leader becomes the members’ “ego ideal.” This is what binds the group together and makes the leader legitimate. This suggests that what seems to lie within a person, for example, his conscience, is actually shaped by what surrounds a person. Some psychoanalysts describe this as a process of “introjection” through which social facts readily become constituents of our individual minds. Environmental psychology depends on such an assumption. If we live in a dirty or disorderly setting, we are likely to feel dirty and disorderly within. Indeed, Milgram varied his experiment to demonstrate the impact of situational factors. For example, when subjects were physically close to the peer/actor they were less likely to obey the scientist.
We can see a situation’s impact on character in more benign settings as well. Consider for example, the “shipboard romance,” in which a woman and man who might not normally find romance together, are freed by the ships’ isolation- it is a social island- to overcome personal or social inhibitions and thus have an affair. The ship’s isolation, its psychological and physical distance from home, makes ongoing relationships appears less consequential, and as a result the romantic partners experience more personal freedom. Isolation plays the same role in the shipboard romance as authority does in the Milgram experiment. It opens up the mind to influence.
Some journalists have reasonably supposed that Dzhokhar experienced his older brother, Tamerlan, as a familial authority. As one journalist writes, “By (Chechen) tradition it is up to the family’s eldest son to enforce the rules for his siblings.” The journalist reports that when their sister Bella was seen “in the company of a boy during her junior year of high school... father dispatched Tamerlan, “to teach his sister’s would be wooer a lesson: Tamerlan found the boy and beat him up.” Moreover, one of Dzhokhar’s friends “recalls that Tamerlan exercised a similarly domineering influence over his younger brother especially after their father decided to return to Russia about a year ago, leaving them behind.” This is why many journalists have assumed reasonably, that Tamerlan influenced his brother’s thinking about Islam and the west. Indeed, Dzhokhar told his friend, “ My brother is telling me to be more Islamic.” As a result, Dzhokhar started praying, and watching “online sermons by the radical cleric and al-Qaeda sympathizer Anwar al-Awlaki. “
Tamerlan’s own turn to a conservative vision of Islam was in fact quite sudden. After he abandoned a promising boxing career, he grew a beard, insisted that his American born wife wear a black scarf to cover her head, posted videos on his YouTube channel “in support of fundamentalism and violent jihad,” and “interrupted prayers at his mosque on two occasions with outbursts denouncing the idea that Muslims should observe American secular holidays.” Tamerlan also appeared comfortable with personal violence. As we have seen, he beat up his sister’s wooer, while a girl friend once complained to the police that he had beat her. Indeed this is one reason the authorities held up his application for citizenship.
So one hypothesis is that Tamerlan played the same role with his brother that the scientist in Milgram’s experiment played with his subjects. Dzokhar turned over his ethical compass to this brother in a gesture of obedience.
But having stated this hypothesis, I don’t find it entirely convincing. It is interesting in this regard that when subjects in Milgram’s experiment resisted shocking their supposed peer, the scientist, in addition to telling them that they “must go on,” also told them that the shocks while painful, were not dangerous.” Killing innocent runners and observers at a marathon appears to be act quite distinct from, and discontinuous with, railing against the west, watching dramatic videos of Jihad, and even beating up people.
Consider the following. Dzhokhar had a close relationship with his high school wrestling coach, Peter Payack. The latter had run in twelve marathons, and “his love of the race is a given among his wrestlers.” Early in 2013 Dzhokhar “unexpectedly returned to his high school, wrestling shoes in hand, to grapple with the team. ‘We’re all laughing. Everyone’s pulling his hair and saying you ought to do cornrows,’ Mr. Payack said. ‘Eight weeks later, he blows up the marathon. Why would he embrace us if he wants to blow us up?’” Indeed, on the day of the marathon, “Mr. Payack was more than a block from the finish line, hurrying to watch his son complete the race when the first bomb went off. He still has difficulty hearing in one ear.” Trying to make sense of Dzhokhar’s behavior, Payack as we saw, told a reporter, "Everyone is completely bewildered.” I think we should take this bewilderment seriously.
I am drawn here to the fact that the story of how Tamerlan died and Dzokhar was arrested suggests strongly that the brothers were quite amateurish. After the bombing they made no plans to escape, discounting it seems the likelihood that surveillance cameras, and smart phone cameras would eventually identify them. Instead, “the two suspects had gone about their lives as if nothing had happened in the three days following the bombings. Dzhokhar had returned to classes at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth where he was a student, slept every night in his dorm room, worked out at his gym, gone to a party with friends on Wednesday night and posted frequent comments on his Twitter account.”
When their photographs were published the brothers finally realized they were in danger. They stopped a campus policeman in his car apparently to get his gun, but as one police official notes, “He had a triple-lock holster, and they could not figure it out.” They shot and killed the officer and then hijacked an SUV and its driver, and “drove through Cambridge to nearby Watertown, a middle-class suburb of 30,000 where they searched for bank machines. They told the driver that they were the marathon bombers and after using his bankcard to withdraw money from an ATM, photographed of course by an ATM surveillance camera, they inexplicably released him at a gas station. The driver left his cell phone in the car and the police, notified of his kidnapping and release, pinged his phone to track and locate the stolen car. In the ensuing shoot out the elder brother, Tamerlan, “walked toward the officers, firing his gun until he appeared to run out of bullets. Officers tackled him and were trying to get handcuffs on him, when the stolen SUV came roaring at them, the younger brother at the wheel. The officers scattered and the SUV plowed over Tamerlan, who was dragged briefly under the car and killed.” In short, Dzhokhar killed his brother. If the situation were not so tragic, one could almost write this story as keystone-cops farce. The question is, why were the brothers’ so unprepared and so clumsy?
Michael Apter in his provocative book, The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement, argues that people are excited by danger when they experience a “protective frame.” Sometimes, the protective frame is based on a person’s confidence in her skills, for example when she goes rock climbing without tools or equipment (called, “soloing”). In war, the presence of buddies, “a band of brothers,” provides a protective frame, enabling soldiers to feel excited by war as an occasion to express deep friendship. In a recent documentary of a war photographer who was killed in Libya, Sebastian Junger describes dangerous war zones as the occasions to experience “a male Eden.”
Consider as well Apter’s quote of a Vietnam veteran. “As is frequently the case before an operation, we are filled with a ‘happy warrior spirit’ and tend to dramatize ourselves. With our helmets cocked to one side and cigarettes hanging out of our mouths we pose as hard-bitten veterans for the headquarters Marines. We are starring in our very own war movie and the howitzer battery nearby provides some noisy background music.” He goes on to write, “I had enjoyed the killing of the Viet Cong who had run out of the tree line. Strangest of all had been that sensation of watching myself in a movie. One part of me was doing something while the other part watched from a distance, shocked by the things it saw, yet powerless to stop them from happening.” (p. 170)
As this quote suggests, a theatrical or dramatic conception of one’s experience can also provide a protective frame. One’s performance is not in fact “real” but is instead a fictional version of real events. Under these conditions one is both an actor but also a spectator. Consequently, the danger is exciting rather than anxiety producing, in the same way that a ferocious tiger in a cage is exciting rather than threatening. One hypothesis is that the brothers’ amateurish “performance” and their fantasy that they could in fact return to their normal lives after the bombing, meant that they had not in fact actually killed people. They had only acted as if they had. Moreover, and this is important, once danger, along with belief is suspended, actions that would typically promote anxiety and perhaps witdrawal, stimulate excitement and high arousal instead. The arousal in turn further drives out caution.
This speculative hypothesis fits as well with Tamerlan’s own propensity to dramatize his actions. As several journalists reported, Tamerlan was a flamboyant dresser “partial to white fur and snakeskin.” “During registration for a boxing tournament in Lowell (Mass) he sat down at a piano and lost himself for 20 minutes in a piece of classical music. The impromptu performance, so out of place in that world, finished to a burst of applause from surprised onlookers. “He just walked over from the line and started playing like he was in the Boston Pops,” his trainer at the time, Gene McCarthy, 77, recalled… He also incorporated showy gymnastics into his training and fighting, walking on his hands, falling into splits, tumbling into corners.”
This hypothesis of drama or theater as a protective frame also fits with our growing understanding of social media and the virtual world. If young people can become jihadists in the absence of leaders, one powerful force is the way in which social media create an alternative universe. A young man can immerse himself in an assemblage of videos, manuals, chat-rooms and podcasts without ever leaving his home. The battlefront is in his bedroom. It is common of course to note that we can readily conflate the virtual and the real. Indeed, this is why we find violent movies and video games exciting. In effect the movie “cages” the tiger. But if we can mistake the virtual for the real, why can’t we mistake the real for the virtual?
In short, I am suggesting that Dzhokhar faced two reinforcing situational forces. First he gave over his conscience to his brother, but second, and I am suggesting more importantly, he suspended belief in the reality of his actions. Instead, aroused by his brother’s plans and social media’s dramatization of jihad, he became an actor in Jihadi Theater. This is what allowed him to kill innocent people.
If Mark Sageman is right, that we now face a “leaderless Jihad,” it also suggests that we will face increasingly an “irrational Jihad.’ Instead of cells planning action with care and precision, the prototype of this is the cell of the 9/11 attackers, we will have singletons or pairs acting out roles in a Jihadi “theater of the mind.”