Over the coming days, we will learn a great deal about the Tsarnaev brothers. One question that will be on everyone’s mind–especially after the revelation, last night, that the FBI interviewed the elder brother a couple of years ago at the request of a foreign government, presumably Russia, that thought he had radical associations–is whether the brothers acted alone, or were part of a larger group that gave them training or material support. This is an appropriate inquiry, and uncovering any such larger conspiracy, if there was one, will be a significant goal of the ongoing investigation.
My own instinct is that the brothers will prove to have been lone wolves rather than servants of al Qaeda or another radical Muslim group. But that is sheer guess, on which I wouldn’t bet a nickel. The important point is not that the Tsarnaevs acted on their own, but rather that they could have. There is nothing about the murders they carried out that was beyond the capacities of two bright (as they were) and committed young men.
That being the case, it is depressing to contemplate the success that the brothers’ terrorist act achieved. They killed three people and wounded nearly 200. The death toll was kept remarkably low by the fact that the finish line of a marathon is swarming with doctors, nurses, policemen and ambulances, and by the presence nearby of several excellent hospitals; still, the destruction must have been satisfying, from their perspective. Moreover, their homemade explosives succeeded in virtually shutting down a major American city for the better part of a week, and diverting an astonishing volume of law enforcement resources at enormous cost.
That being the case, it is reasonable to ask whether the question of their association with a larger terrorist group, while entirely appropriate, is nevertheless overrated. It strikes me that the main lesson we should take away from the Boston Marathon massacre is the destructive potential of jihadist ideology in itself, apart from its manifestation in relatively large and well-organized groups like, most notably, al Qaeda. Doesn’t the fact that two guys like the Tsarnaev brothers can cause such destruction, and paralyze an entire metropolitan area, regardless of whether they had any direct association with al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, call into question the adequacy of a drones-over-Afghanistan strategy? And shouldn’t we at least consider, in the midst of a wide-ranging debate over immigration policy, whether more realistic immigration measures should be taken to limit the risk posed by home grown (or, as in this case, transplanted) terrorists?
If we find, in due course, that the brothers were part of a larger gang from which they received support, some will find the fact comforting. My view is that any such comfort would be misplaced. The salient point is not that the Tsarnaev brothers managed to achieve such terrorist “success” on their own, but rather, that they plainly could have.