What seems exotic to Americans, in other words, could prove to be a fairly common story: A Chechen family moves around the former Soviet Union for a few years, finally strikes it lucky and ends up in the United States. They’ve been here for a decade. The brothers went to high school in Boston. One was a boxing champion, the other a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
But something went terribly wrong, and perhaps that something had to do with Chechnya. The two bloody Chechen wars caused incredible damage and inspired an equally bloody terrorist movement. Once a largely secular population, some Chechens became radicalized after losing their homes, friends and families. Chechen terrorism includes the violent storming of a Moscow theater, attacks by several female suicide bombers and the bombing of a Moscow airport. Worst of all was the 2004 siege of a primary school in the city of Beslan, a disaster that ended with the deaths of hundreds of parents and children. The nihilism and cruelty of Chechen terrorists, who have often targeted innocent bystanders, seem to have an echo in the horribly random Boston Marathon bombings.
One or both of the brothers might well have been in touch with Chechen separatists, whose Web sites they were reportedly reading. They could even have been in touch with al-Qaeda. But I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Chechen terrorists have in the past been more anti-Russian than pro-Islam. They are not known for being anti-American.
Look, instead, at another possibility, one that is in some ways more disturbing than the convenient “foreigners who hate us” explanation. Although very little has been confirmed, the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers looks less like that of hardened, trained terrorists and far more closely resembles the second-generation European Muslims who staged bombings in Madrid, London and other European cities. Educated and brought up in Europe, these young men nevertheless felt out of place in Europe. Unable to integrate, some turned toward a half-remembered, half-mythological homeland in search of a firmer, fiercer identity. Often they did so with the help of a radical cleric like the one the Tsarnaev brothers may have known. “I do not have a single American friend,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly said of himself. That’s the kind of statement that might have been made by a young Pakistani living in Coventry, or a young Algerian living in Paris.
We don’t expect to hear it from someone who grew up in Boston, a city that has taught generations of foreigners to become Americans in a country that likes to think of itself as a melting pot. But now it might be time to change our expectations. These terrorists are a lot less like the 9/11 attackers — or the Columbine attackers — and a lot more like the men known as the Tube bombers of London or the train bombers of Spain. Our response is going to have to be different — very different — as well.
Read more from Anne Applebaum’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.