Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Psychiatric Defense

How the Boston Marathon bomber might defend himself

The Tsarnaev brothers who are accused of having set off bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, 26-year-old Tamerlan and 19-year-old Dzhokhar, have two images. (Tamerlan is deceased, leaving only Dzhokhar to be charged.) The chief image is, of course, that they are terrorists-murderers who killed three people, including an 8-year-old, while maiming several others, leading to the amputations of their legs.

The brothers allegedly did this with a breath-taking nonchalance. The video released of them before depositing their bombs portrays two young guys who might have been whistling as they worked. They showed no signs of anxiety, apprehension, or -- God knows -- guilt. After the killings, they seemingly continued their routines, in which Dzhokhar worked out and exchanged regretful comments about the bombings he had allegedly just perpetrated, as though he were completely unconnected to the deeds.

According to his friends, University of Massachusetts sophomore Dzhokhar Tsarnaev worked out, slept in his dorm room, and hung out with fellow students on the same day of the attack on the Boston Marathon, after the bombs went off.

The criminal complaintagainst Dzhokhar reports that as-yet-unreleased video shows him dispassionate and calm as others react in terror around him when the explosives detonated.

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Looking further into their backgrounds, as David Remnick did in The New Yorker, however, we get a puzzling picture underlying the nonchalant bomber. He was seen as a nice, generous -- if somewhat detached -- young man by friends and wrestling teammates. His coach commended him for his commitment to the team. Most of those who knew him were completely confounded to learn he was allegedly involved in the bombings.

Remnick lays out a number of points that could set the stage for a psychological defense for Dzhokhar -- ideas that also build an alternative image of the teenager. This view incorporates Dzhokhar's descent from a decimated ethnic group (the Chechens), who were uprooted from their traditional home by a paranoid Joseph Stalin during World War II. The exile of these people -- as well as killing tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands -- left them rootless, demoralized, and victimized. Their diaspora and persecution were furthered by a continuing campaign against them as a radical and discordant Muslin minority inside and outside Russia, leading to many more tens of thousands of deaths throughout the 1990s.

Moreover, a general view of Dzhokhar (most clearly enunciated by his uncle) is that he was following the lead of his older brother, who was clearly a radicalized extremist Islamic convert. According to those who knew them, Dzhokhar idolized Tamerlan, the oldest of four children, seven years his brother's senior, who had served in loco parentis for Dzhokhar since their parents had returned to the Russian region of Dagestan. And, indeed, who looked after Dzhokhar when his brother returned to Dagestan for six months last year?

So which was he, this 19-year-old -- a heartless, detached murderer, or a confused, untethered teenage exile?

Well, both. Last year, the 18-year-old wrote "a decade in america already, I want out" -- the quote with which Remnick ends his article.

Can a psychological case be made to defend a teenager who immigrated to America as a small child, who was deprived of his parents while in his teens, and who was raised and dominated by a criminal, murderous sibling -- one, moreover, who can't speak for himself at a trial? Was this a boy who didn't realize the meaning and impact of his actions? Would this account for his dissociative behavior prior to and following the bombing, which the videos and interviews with his friends and relatives do nothing so much as to establish?

We may see.  Indeed, he may already be doing so.

Follow Stanton Peele on Twitter: www.twitter.com/speele5

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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