nonfiction

Book Review: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

I was cooking dinner with NPR on the radio on the afternoon of April 15, 2013, when news began to come across about an explosion at the Boston Marathon. I chopped, sauteed, and stirred while listening, horrified, wondering what on earth was happening to the country that something like this was taking place. Like everyone else, I followed the story breathlessly until one of the accused bombers was captured after a massive manhunt that shut down Boston four days later (and yet, somehow, no one whined about their freedom and their right to roam the streets when they were asked to stay in their homes then…). The story was terrifying and strange, and I knew I needed to learn more about it when I learned of the existence of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen (Penguin, 2015).

Ms. Gessen recounts the tumultuous family history of Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers accused (Dhzokhar convicted; Tamerlan was killed beforehand) of the Boston Marathon bombing. Their Chechen ancestry had their family constantly on the move between Russian federation countries, never feeling welcome, never finding the successful life they craved, until finally, they came to the United States, a country that didn’t necessarily work hard to welcome them and to which they had a difficult time adapting.

The brothers’ stories are nebulous. Upon learning that they were the accused whom the FBI was searching, friends were aghast, incredulous: there was no outward sign from either of the two young men that they were capable of or even interested in doing something like this. But apparently this is more akin to what a terrorist really looks like; the myth of the young man who has been radicalized by one or more sources doesn’t actually line up with what most terrorism experts have observed. The picture Ms. Gessen paints is one far more complex than what I ever caught on the bits and snippets on the radio, a story that is heavy, depressing, and full of more questions than answers.

To what extent should immigrant families assimilate? How should they go about doing so, and who makes the decisions about which traditions, which attitudes, which practices, to abandon? What is America’s responsibility to people who become citizens? Does a person’s birthplace determine their susceptibility to terrorism or crime? Should your ancestry place you on a watch list, and is it okay for the FBI to attempt to initiate entrapment with those people on that list? Who gets to write the warning signs that point out would-be terrorists, and which list of signs should be followed?

Ms. Gessen raises a lot of questions about corruption amongst the government agencies that followed the Tsarnaevs both before and after, which I knew little about before reading this. Like I said, this is obviously a deeply complex story, one which probably goes even deeper than the information available to the public from any source. The utter tragedy that was the Boston Marathon in 2013 extends further than I knew, goes back ages, has its roots in political struggles far outside the borders of the US, and is a stark example of the ripple effect of those struggles. It’s a depressing story, of lives damaged, ruined, and ended, none of which had to happen, and which maybe could have been prevented if humanity learned to work out their problems instead of taking them out on other humans.

The Brothers paints the picture of a tragedy so twisted and tangled that it’s hard to sum it up in just a short review, and I’m sure the story will continue to unfold as the years roll on. My heart breaks for the people who were hurt or killed at the race, and for those who lost loved ones, and likewise, I’m saddened by the loss of potential of the two young men who could have used their lives in a positive way had so many circumstances been different.

Follow Masha Gessen on Twitter.

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