Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Right-Wing Extremist?

According to a BBC report, the alleged mastermind behind the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was in possession of extremist American right-wing literature prior to the attack. Tamerlan, the elder of the two brothers responsible for the attack, subscribed to publications espousing white supremacy and government conspiracy theories; articles claiming, “Hitler had a point,” arguing that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing were government conspiracies, and asserting that the U.S. government was orchestrating “the rape of our gun rights.” Additionally, Tsarnaev possessed literature investigating the motivation of mass killings, noting how perpetrators maimed and killed calmly, along with material about U.S. drone strikes killing civilians and the plight of Guantanamo Bay inmates.

The report, entitled “The Brothers who Bombed Boston,” is based on months of exclusive interviews with friends of the bombers to understand the roots of their radicalization. Its findings complicate the picture of the Tsarnaev brothers as “just self-styled radical jihadists,” author Hilary Anderson notes.

She may have a point. In the days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Sarah Kendzior wrote a poignant commentary on the media’s portrayal of the brothers entitled, “The Wrong Kind of Caucasian.” In it, she writes, "The FBI released photos of two young men wearing baseball caps — men who so resembled all-American frat boys that people joked they would be the target of ‘racial bro-filing.’ The men were Caucasian, so the speculation turned away from foreign terror and toward the excuses routinely made for white men who kill: mental illness, anti-government grudges, frustrations at home.” She goes on to note that these explanations disappeared as soon as the brothers’ Chechen and Muslim identities were revealed, which became the justifications for their violent behavior.

However, the BBC report paints a fuller picture. It mentions how Tamerlan Tsarnaev became frustrated with his faltering boxing career and lack of American citizenship, prompting his turn against the government. Nicole Mossalam, a spokesperson for his mosque in Cambridge, called him “a Muslim of convenience” and portrayed him as an angry young man who latched onto Islam.

But perhaps BBC’s findings shouldn’t be that surprising. For example, since the ‘80s, psychologists have identified and developed measurements for right-wing authoritarianism, a personality dimension correlated with fundamentalist religiosity, ethnocentrism, generalized prejudice, and more.

What right-wing authoritarianism and this BBC report highlight is something we really should have known all along: that extremism knows no ideological bounds. It’s an especially profound lesson so soon after the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, carried out by a white supremacist. That we see “self-styled radical jihadists” as somehow mutually exclusive from “right-wing extremists” shows a profound misunderstanding of just what radicalism means. Those at ideological poles across groups have far more in common with each other than they have with the moderates within their groups. So when we look to ethnic or even religious affiliations to explain a crime, we fail to understand just how pernicious extremism can be. And it never dawns on us that, perhaps, radical jihadism and right-wing (among other forms of) extremism are just two sides of the same coin.