The Boston Marathon bombers.
“The most difficult part of getting to the top of the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.”
—Arch Ward (1896–1955), Chicago Tribune sports editor and founder of the Golden Gloves of America Tournament of Champions
Alienation, poverty and despair drive people—overwhelmingly young men—to awful acts of violence. That’s as true for the strung-out soldier who commits war crimes in Kandahar as it is for the gang member who kills a child on the South Side of Chicago. It’s also true in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead—and deadly—elder bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The recognition of the roots of his rage rings clearly in a brilliant, harrowing profile that appeared Sunday in The New York Times. It’s less a story than an autopsy that explores what killed Tsarnaev’s hope that he could make a life in the United States. Given the unconscionable arguments by Representative Peter King and countless others that the Tsarnaev’s crimes should be a clarion call for intensified profiling and surveillance of Muslim families in the United States, understanding Tsarnaev’s motivations is critical. Just as we shouldn’t accept the racist argument that “culture” is the root cause of gun deaths in Chicago, we should reject the idea that Islam bears any sort of collective responsibility for Tsarnaev’s crimes.
The Times article, “A Battered Dream for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Then a Violent Path,” is heartbreaking, but also does a tremendous service by explaining—not excusing, but explaining—how he arrived at bombing the Boston Marathon on Patriot’s Day, killing three and injuring more than 200. People should read the article, and I’m not going to rehash it. But I do want to explore its examination of how much immigrant aspiration Tsarnaev put into boxing and how the sports establishment in the post 9/11 era responded by pushing him away.
In most descriptions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he’s described as a “one-time boxer.” That doesn’t quite tell the story. Tsarnaev was a two-time New England Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion. This was a flamboyant showman of a fighter wearing white leather and furs and incorporating “showy gymnastics into his training and fighting, walking on his hands, falling into splits, tumbling into corners.” The religious ascetic would emerge later. At this point Tsarnaev was WWE flair with Donald Trump attitude. He was America as learned through a television screen. But also, like the America of his dreams, his ambitions were as large as his attitude.
A high school classmate in Cambridge, Luis Vasquez, said to the Times, “The view on him was that he was a boxer and you would not want to mess with him. He told me that he wanted to represent the U.S. in boxing. He wanted to do the Olympics and then turn pro.”