In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act. Dzhokhar, for example, was reportedly a successful student and championship wrestler in Cambridge, Massachusetts—hardly the typical foreign jihadist. People with family roots in the Caucasus are often perceived in Russia and elsewhere as inherently rebellious and conflict-prone, a line of thinking that has deep roots in Russian culture. That imagery still affects how street crime is reported in Moscow, how Russian security services target people they believe to be potential terrorists, and how Russia’s own often brutal “anti-terrorist operations” play out in the towns and villages of places such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and other republics of the north Caucasus that are little known in the West. The sad truth is that the scenes in Boston early this morning—with SWAT teams in full battle gear, a shootout on the street, and an alleged suspect perhaps wearing an explosive vest or other suicide device—are all too typical in the north Caucasus itself. The difference is that in Russia, these operations are sometimes little more than assassination missions, designed to target alleged terrorists on only the flimsiest of evidence. That is obviously not the case in Boston. But speculating about the brothers’ ethnic origins plays into the worst stereotypes that have bedeviled attempts to bring peace, stability, and good governance to Russia’s southern borderlands.
Look, I’m still convinced that we don’t know enough to make responsible judgments… and therefore that commentary should focus on issues that we can say something about. Of course, we may eventually know whether the brothers understood themselves as acting on behalf of their ethnic homeland, but this is a useful rejoinder to those who are already salivating at the prospect of a new front for the United States in the long war.