It is now one week since two crudely made “improvised explosive devices” tore through the crowd near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring dozens of others, many suffering severe and traumatic injuries including the loss of multiple limbs. What was supposed to be a day of celebration of one of the oldest sporting events in the country had become the backdrop for one of the worst terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11. The bomb remnants investigators discovered in the aftermath of the blast appeared to have been made from pressure cookers and stuffed with nails and ball bearings so as to maximize casualties from shrapnel. Inspired by similar devices used by insurgents to wreak havoc on American and allied troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it appeared that the chickens from US imperialism’s adventures abroad might have once again come home to roost. Trauma surgeons who treated the wounded at local hospitals described the injuries as “combat like,” just as images of the blast sight showing sidewalks stained with blood filled the airwaves and streamed across WiFi connections. America, and especially the city of Boston, appeared to be in a state of disbelief and shock.
Nevertheless, only days later the FBI was able to identify two suspects using footage from the now ubiquitous surveillance cameras that look down on pedestrians and vehicles from the rooftops and traffic signals of just about every major city in the world. And, as the FBI, Governor Patrick and President Obama all boldly promised in the aftermath of the attacks, the state was quickly able to put the pieces of the investigative puzzle together and identify the supposed culprits. By the end of the night on Friday, April 20th,, 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarneaev, a resident of a Boston suburb with a passion for boxing, was dead, killed in a violent shoot-out with police. His badly wounded 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar would be captured, weakened and incoherent from blood loss caused by a hail of police bullets. As this is written, the younger Nasaraev remains in serious condition in a Boston hospital, unable to communicate we are told. Still, the US federal state proudly proclaims, in a tone that appears designed to reassure us of something, that once he comes to they won’t even bother to read him his Miranda rights before the federal government’s “high value interrogation team”1 goes to work.
In the interim period between the attacks and the dramatic events of Friday night, the US state and its media apparatus went into full propaganda mode, exploiting the attacks for all they were worth. On Thursday, President Obama travelled to Boston to speak to an “interfaith service,” loudly stating his resolve that the perpetrators would face the “full weight of American justice.”2 Although, the scale of destruction in Boston was nowhere near as severe as what occurred on September 11th, 2001(nor as grave as that which US imperialism continues to visit upon civilian populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere), the U.S. state wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to once again beat the drums about the need for national unity in the face of terrorism and run a massive media campaign trotting out all kinds of talking heads from “terrorism experts” to criminal profilers, various psychologists and beyond; all designed, they said, to help an anxious public understand what had happened and reassure them that in the end justice would be done American style.
In Boston itself, the city was kept on high alert for the entire period. Just as the media spouted their drivel about how the city would refuse to be terrorized, Governor Patrick pleaded with residents to stay in their homes, revealing the ease with which the bourgeoisie talks out of both sides of its mouth in the pursuit of a patriotic narrative. On Friday, with Dzhokhar still on the loose, the state put the city on “total lock down” reducing much of the Boston area to a ghost town. The media announced that police were performing door-to-door searches; the city had been divided up into “zones”; Blackhawk helicopters were flying overhead and high tech military equipment would be deployed. The language of military occupation and prison discipline was now flippantly applied to the very American city in which the struggle against British military occupation had been launched two and a half centuries before—all in the pursuit of a wounded and almost certainly terrified 19-year-old kid who appeared to have no real plan for how to elude authorities other than to conceal himself under a boat tarp.
All of this should make it abundantly clear that terrorism, in whatever form, can only ever serve the interests of the bourgeois state—whether this takes the form of giving the state the opportunity to practice the militarization of a city, allowing the media to beat the drums of patriotism, or creating the excuse for the politicians to propose legislation to “beef up security.” This was made evident in the aftermath of the arrest of Dzhokhar when local residents spontaneously assembled on neighborhood sidewalks to cheer the police as a parade of squad cars left the scene. Later that night, in the heart of the city a “celebration” broke out that witnessed ordinary working people spontaneously hugging and shaking the hands of the cops sent there to keep order. One is tempted to compare the spectacle of Friday night to Eastern European civilians cheering the arrival of the Soviet army in 1945 – but how quickly do tonight’s liberators become tomorrow’s jack booted thugs? If there is one thing terrorism generally accomplishes, it is to drive the population into the hands of the state, goading them to identify with its repressive forces as their only protection against the irrational violence of terrorism unleashed in their communities.
Of course, the sense of relief that Bostonians felt once it was clear that the alleged perpetrators had been rendered incapable of causing further damage to their city is understandable; it is a genuine tragedy when working people come to identify with the state, rather than their own struggles, as their best protection against the growing decomposition of society. It is for this reason that anyone concerned with creating a better world—a world beyond the exploitation and violence of capitalism—must categorically reject terrorism as a tactic for pursing that goal. It accomplishes nothing other than to drive the working class—the only social force capable of offering humanity a real future—into the hands of the very state that represses it.
Nevertheless, the Boston events simply do not have the same scale that the 9/11 attacks did, so it seems likely that the celebratory fervor whipped up by the media will eventually fade. However, the state did manage to take one of the alleged perpetrators into custody, so we can certainly expect quite the media circus surrounding his trial (if he survives his police perpetrated injuries). Where will he be prosecuted? Will he be treated as an “enemy combatant” or will he be given a civilian trial? Will the federal government go for the death penalty, even though there is no death penalty under Massachusetts state law? How much was the young Dzhokhar under the influence of his older brother? To what extent was he really a hardened terrorist? Will he ask for forgiveness or will he mock the victims? All of this will keep the media buzzing for quite some time.
But underneath all these surface questions lies a more fundamental one: what would drive two young men who had lived most of their lives in the United States towards such violence against their neighbors? There will, of course, be a temptation by some of the cruder elements in the media to blame it all on the brothers’ Chechen background and Muslim heritage. “Muslims simply can’t be trusted,” they will say; “We should be much more circumspect about who we let into the country.” International terrorism experts might even tell us that Putin is right to take a hard line with such ruthless and unscrupulous people.
Others will blame the Internet as an “ungoverned” space that allows foreign terrorist organizations to “radicalize” vulnerable youth across national and continental borders. Undoubtedly, the media’s hired shrinks, in violation of just about every canon of their profession, will probe deep into the psyches of these two young men they have never met and tell us all about how their inability to fully integrate into American society left them isolated and in search of a purpose beyond themselves,3 which they found in radical Islam or Chechen nationalism or some such archaic ideology. Perhaps the more farsighted elements in the US bourgeoisie will come to recognize that, like most of the Western European countries, they now have their own problem with “home grown” Islamic terrorism that cannot be solved with repression alone and which demands serious sociological and psychological research to address.
But whatever “answers” the bourgeois commissions and academic investigations will come up with, it is highly unlikely they will be able to hit on the real answer as to what fuels such violence and destruction: the decomposition of capitalist society itself, which more and more pushes some young people into a state of desperation and alienation so painful that lashing out at society in one last blaze of violence seems the only answer to their profound existential crises.
The bourgeois experts probably won’t see any connection between the violent, but calculated, actions of the Tsarnaevs and the less political, more desperate, but just as nihilistic outbursts of an Adam Lanza, James Holmes, or Jared Lee Loughner. Islamic terrorism is fundamentally different from these kinds of mass shooting they will tell us. One is fueled by a foreign political ideology that exploits vulnerable young people, the other by “mental illness” or the easy availability of guns. But is there any really tangible difference between the Tsarnaev’s case and the violent outbursts perpetrated by these young, white, “American” men? Is it not the case that the only difference is that the Tsarneaevs—perhaps as a tangential result of their Chechen heritage or Muslim background—fell under the influence of a sick ideology (itself the product of social decomposition) and thus were able to, in their own minds, rationalize their homicidal rampage as politically necessary? But this does not explain why two young men, in the supposed prime of their lives, supposedly living the American dream, would be in such a state of mind to begin with where such ideologies could even appeal to them. How can such ideologies come to speak to young men growing up in the heart of a supposed capitalist “democracy”?
What are the underlying social, economic and psychological injuries that drive such young men to identify with a suicidal ideology that grows out of political struggle thousands of miles away from them and that has no direct affect on their daily lives and which they can only experience as an abstract fantasy?4 Could it be that the political extremism of the type that appears to have subsumed at least the older Tsarnaev is only the last exit off the highway before one’s desperation arrives at the kind of nihilist insanity that engulfed Lanza, Holmes and Loughner? Maybe the Tsarnaev’s route to political extremism was not so different from these three white “American” young men’s route to violent insanity?5 If this is the case, we must look beyond simplistic explanations that would understand these attacks as a result of the young brother’s ethnicity and religion and look instead to the social decomposition of capitalist society in the United States itself and the accompanying ethos of “no future” that increases many in the younger generations (in particular young men) today.
What, then, are some of the features of the objective social and economic situation facing the younger generations today that underlie the repeated violent outbursts we have witnessed? First, it should be acknowledged that the effects of capitalism’s economic crisis that accelerated in dramatic fashion in 2008 have so far fallen disproportionately on the younger generation. To begin with, unemployment is much higher among younger workers today than their older class peers.6 Many younger workers are simply unable to find a job that would pay them enough to live an “adult lifestyle” and thus complete the psychological transition from adolescence to adulthood in a more or less healthy way. The percentage of college educated young people who continue to live with their parents has increased dramatically as a result of the crisis.7 Moreover, as the job market continues to stagnate, many younger people find that they can only survive the crisis by prolonging their post-secondary educations and thus get sucked deep into the educational debt trap. Many young people are leaving college (with or without a degree) with staggering debt loads, fueling a sense of not being to get ahead or to even establish oneself as an independent and autonomous person in this world.
It is not a long jump from understanding these objective phenomena to appreciating the psychological toll this can take on young people, many of whom are increasingly thrown into a deep identity crisis. The burden can be particularly hard on young men, who still tend to be socialized in the model of the bourgeois “bread winner.” The frustration from the inability to find a meaningful and sufficiently remunerative job, the sense of uselessness that comes from prolonged periods of unemployment, the embarrassment of having to move back home with one’s parents, the reversal of standard gender roles that often occurs when a female partner works, but the male is stuck at home, is often an “emasculating” experience that fuels a profound identity crisis, which can cause some young men to lash out at the women in their lives and the broader society that appears to send mixed messages about masculine identity.
The older Tsarneaev is reported to have been charged with domestic violence in the past—a fact that may have caused the immigration authorities to deny his application for US citizenship.8 It has also been reported that his partner worked, while he was staying home and caring for their child. While it would be extrapolating too much at this stage to say we know the precise role these factors played in his “radicalization,” it seems reasonable to consider whether Tamerlan’s strained relationship with his partner was one of the factors which made radical Islam, a philosophy in which gender roles are not so ambiguous and women are supposed to know their place, attractive to him. Can the attraction of these kinds of ideologies, in part, be the sense of male empowerment they can give to young men struggling with their inability to live up to traditional notions of masculinity?
But, even if this is the case, it should be clear that this does not so much represent the penetration of some archaic foreign way of thought into American society, as much as it expresses the breakdown of traditional bourgeois family and social roles and the resultant crisis in male socialization that is a function of capitalist decomposition. While as communists we do not lament the decline of traditional bourgeois gender values, we can still recognize the part this might play in fueling the social crisis before us and how it could contribute to the repeated outbursts of irrational violence that continue to dominate news reports on what seems like a regular basis.
Undoubtedly, some critics will not find our attempt to understand the roots of these violent outbursts convincing. The less forgiving of them will tell us these kinds of attacks can only be condemned, not “understood.” We won’t spend much time responding to this line of argument, as it is not very serious. However, a more sophisticated challenge might say that not all unemployed or debt ridden young people resort to this kind of violence—so we cannot use such objective social conditions to explain these attacks. While it is indeed true that the vast majority of young people will never even consider engaging in this kind of violence, this kind of criticism rather misses the point. Pushed to the edge inevitably some people are bound to go over it and lash out at society in a violent way; and as recent events have shown, it only takes a handful to cause carnage and heartache on a massive scale.
Nevertheless, the critics may have a point in that there are alternatives to such a violent response to alienation and economic stress. Pointless violence is not the only option. Just within the last several years, we have seen several examples of young people coming together in solidarity to discuss an alternative to this society. For all their warts, movements like Occupy and the Indignados in Spain are powerful evidence that there is another way to express frustration and anger at this society that is far more powerful than any individualized violence. It is the collective solidarity forged in struggle that shows us the way forward and demonstrates to us how a world beyond the pain and suffering of the damaged individual ego is possible. Still, these movements cannot be willed into existence. They are themselves products of deep social and historical forces that are thus beyond the power of isolated individuals, or small groups, to create ex nihilio. The burning question thus becomes: how to we channel our frustrations in the meantime?
As far as US internal politics go, it is likely that, whatever their initial propaganda value, these bombings will not work in favor of the Obama administration. With reports surfacing that the FBI interviewed the older Tsarnaev brother two years ago at the bequest of Russian intelligence and concluded he was not a threat, it seems inevitable that this will fuel Republican-led investigations on Capitol Hill and accusations that the Obama administration simply cannot keep us safe from terror. With Senators McCain and Graham already calling on Obama to declare the younger Tsarnaev an “enemy combatant” and forego any of the legal niceties supposedly afforded by the US Constitution,9 there promises to be another round of heated disputes ahead. The only real question seems to be whether or not the Republicans will overplay their hand.
Moreover, although the Boston bombings momentarily distracted the media’s attention, away from the defeat of gun control legislation backed by President Obama, this defeat only seems to have emboldened the President’s opponents. Already, despite the apparent willingness of many Republicans to relent to comprehensive immigration reform, there is talk of strengthening right-wing resistance to any bill that would grant anything remotely resembling “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. Clearly, the rancor and furor that has characterized the internal life of the US bourgeoisie over the last several years has not subsided as much as the media would have had us believe the last three months. In line with the nature of the period, it seems likely that these bombings will only become more fodder in what seems like inexhaustible infighting among the various factions that comprise the bourgeois state. What a reversal of fortune for the US bourgeoisie from 2001, when it was able to utilize the 9/11 attacks to forge a national consensus for war.
In the end, even if we have the ability through the Marxist method to begin to understand the underlying social and economic factors that can drive some alienated youth towards acts of terrorism, or other acts of desperate violence, we have to be clear that these can never be a tactic for the emancipation of the proletariat. Terrorism and irrational violence only end up serving the interests of the state, and thus the entire capitalist system, as they are exploited to drum up propaganda and fear campaigns that push significant parts of the working class, even if only temporarily, into the arms of the state. Still, in the context of capitalist decomposition, in which the system is increasingly unable to offer the younger generation any real perspective for their future, regardless of what country they come from, what ethnicity they are or what religion, creed or ideology they are influenced by, we can likely only expect more of these outbursts of irrational violence in the future.
The only hope humanity has to avoid the twin pillars of senseless violence and state repression lies in the independent and autonomous struggle of the working class to defend its standard of living against capital’s attacks. Only this struggle can render the communist perspective visible and offer the younger generations hope for an alternative to the life of frustration, despair and seeming randomness that characterizes capitalism in decomposition.
1 Just what this means is unclear, but one wonders what tactics will be employed and what the Obama administration will admit to using?
2 Somewhat oddly, despite repeated warnings that dangerous terrorists were probably on the loose in the city, the US state seemed to have little concern about President Obama travelling to Boston and making a public address, something that is sure to fuel the grist of the conspiracy theory mills. In fact, at a Monday night press conference a “reporter” asked the Governor Patrick, before a national audience, if this was yet another “false flag” attack. Whatever success the US state had in exploiting this bombing for its own interests, it seems unable to achieve the level of national integration it did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
3 A version of this kind of “explanation” was immediately proffered up by the Tsarneaevs’ uncle—a seemingly successful Washington, DC area lawyer – who proclaimed in front of media cameras that his nephews were “losers” who could not integrate themselves into American society and who probably perpetrated these acts out of jealously against those who were able to “settle themselves.”. Of course, what the bombastic uncle completely failed to explain was why exactly the brothers had failed to “settle themselves.”
4 Of course, in recent memory it was not uncommon for many young men of Irish descent in the Boston area (many of whom had likely never been there or even knew someone from Ireland) to develop an interest in the IRA and the “Irish liberation struggle.” The irony of this never seemed to occur to the bourgeois media.
5 While we do not deny the possibility that some form of “mental illness” suffered by the various perpetrators of the recent shooting incidents may have played a role in motivating the attacks, as Marxists we don't think it is possible to stop our inquiry here. It is necessary to probe deeper and ask what is the cause of mental illness itself? Is it always an “organic brain disease” or is it possible that social, economic and political alienation can also play a role in causing some people to lose their moorings in reality and retreat into a fantasy world of violent wish fulfillment?
6 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the official unemployment rate for workers aged 20-24 was 13.3 percent for March 2013. The rate among workers aged 16-19 was even higher at 24.2 percent. This compares to a rate of 6.2 percent for those 25 and over. See https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea10.htm
7 “(According to a 2011 report from the BLS), the percentage of men age 25 to 34 living in the home of their parents rose from 14 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2011 and from eight percent to 10 percent over the period for women.” See: https://www.parjustlisted.com/archives/10675
9 McCain and Graham’s request was loudly ridiculed by Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz who mocked the idea that a U.S. citizen could legally be declared an enemy combatant for a crime that occurred on US soil as expressing a gross ignorance of the law. Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented the US state from publicly invoking the so-called “Public Safety Exception” to the Miranda requirement in Dzhokhar’s case. One wonders if the authorities recognize how blatantly fascistic the idea of a public safety exception to a supposedly fundamental constitutional right sounds? When asked about why the government simply wouldn’t read Dzhokhar his rights, one legal reporter from National Public Radio, in an increasingly common expression of Orwellian Kafkaism, flippantly remarked that, “They are concerned he might actually exercise them.”