What to Make of the Chechnya Connection? An Expert Weighs In

In the aftermath of the firefight in Watertown, MA, and the revelation of the identities of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, the news was inundated with discussion of Chechnya.

And just that quickly a tragedy was made political.

The coverage was weak at best, at worst a more subtle form of the racism the NY Post displayed earlier this week, adducing ethnicity/nationality/religion as motive, and filling the airwaves with disclaimers to reduce legal liability. I decided to reach out to an actual expert on post-Soviet states and get his opinion.

Jenik Radon is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has experience working in and with Afghanistan for decades, working with Estonian and Georgian people and governments, and navigating the trans-Caucasus region. He has a vast legal and practical knowledge of the region, and is sensitive to questions of religion and ethnicity as well as nationalism.

First, he explained to me, we have no clear idea what is actually happening in Chechnya, certainly not on a day-to-day basis. It’s been more or less a hidden war for a generation, for which “the western news media has no in-depth knowledge,” especially when compared to situation in nations of the Middle East where news media have more or less open access.

Without that core understanding of what is going on in the region, what the issues are, and what people’s actions are there, there is no way to make any association with what the two brothers in Boston did or why. He says,

“The Chechens do not understand why people such as the Georgians, the Azeris and the Armenians were given their own states after the break-up of the Soviet Union and they were not. In that regard the Chechen story is similar to the story and history of the Kurds, who also seek their own state. Religion is clearly not a motive or driving force.”

Radon argues that the Chechen resistance was a strongly nationalist cause, in an area that happened to be mostly Muslim; it was not an Islamist cause. The Russian state, in using the Global War on Terror as a cover for extreme repression of Chechens, helped create the enemy— the Chechen people—who they were trying to integrate into the Russian Federation. Beslan, a heinous and sad siege, for example, where school children were killed by a Chechen extremist, was a disaster that brought swift condemnation and backlash from Chechen nationalists. This condemnation is forgotten.

Radon believes, he tells me, that the Chechen cause is a highly localized and nationalist one and would not operate across borders. [Note: The President of Chechnya has issued a statement denying any relationship with the Tsarnaev brothers. The sentiment is echoed by their uncle.]

I also asked him, as we are hearing reports that Tsarnaev brothers spent time in Central Asian states, about what their experience might have been in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan.

Radon’s response echoes what he said about Chechnya:

“we have no full picture of what is actually going on in that part of the world, the suffering and poverty many people endure in a number of those states; and we have no understanding of what our foreign policy could unintentionally wreak by even working with authoritarian regimes that are known to have killed their own people or committed other human rights violations.”

Radon is worried about a blowback scenario, but does not believe that the Tsarnaev brothers were fighting for any Caucasus or Central Asian cause here in the US:

“No I do not believe that this was part of a larger plot [or movement] and there are no indications of that so far. This incident should be compared to the Oklahoma bombing and Columbine.”

Radon believes the link to foreign causes is being dramatized, and is not based in any in-depth understanding or knowledge of world affairs. He thinks the plight or cause of Chechnya cannot be understood in a neat soundbite.

I asked him about Adam Serwer’s reporting that the elder brother was favoriting radical YouTube videos. Without minimizing the hatred and damage that these videos represent, he thinks blaming these videos is an easy answer. The question is what drew them to those YouTube videos in the first place. It’s like when we point to comics, video games, etc. as causes for similar tragedies, like Columbine. In fact, Radon sees Columbine as a much closer parallel. These are two young boys or adults who were outsiders, one may have needed access to mental health services, and who had too easy access to guns and explosives.

I tell him that I’m worried about a backlash against Muslims, and this attack being framed as a religious issue. He says that looking at religion is too often an easy answer in today’s world, and people should look at issues in depth. He believes we need more and better access to mental health care, better gun laws, and most importantly, we need to think about the vast numbers of unemployed people we have, whether in this country or elsewhere—people who have lost hope. 

Relying on his vast experience in the global marketplace, Radon points out that you see increases in violence when there is no economic opportunity, and more importantly, no economic hope, no hope of having a better tomorrow. It’s not an argument about poverty, but an argument for the need to create sustainable, beneficial, productive jobs for all people, “giving people a chance to dream that there will be a great big beautiful tomorrow also for them.”

Radon noted that believing in a better tomorrow is a powerful positive motivating and invigorating force. For him, it’s not coincidental, although very sad, that we see an uptick in xenophobic attacks during this period of severe economic downturn. By focusing only on each incident of mass violence by itself, and seeking one-word rationales for that violence, we miss the deeper issues we can and need to address to make tragedies like these much less likely. (A lively discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish is making similar points, and comparing the brothers to “American” terrorists.) Then, Radon asks my opinion on the same question.

I find it difficult to disagree with him. These were lonely kids; at least one was a social outcast. He appeared to not have any person he felt he could engage with, talk to, and instead turned to radical Muslim preachers, who have their own agenda. We don’t know if that is ultimately what motivated him, or if it was a veneer for much deeper problems.

People may start fearing that their neighbor may go Muslim, but we know that’s not the issue. It’s a false fear that denies the reality of the American Muslim experience, and how all Americans deal with one another. One only has to look at the Islamic Center of Boston’s response in providing doctors and refuge, as well as calling for as many people as possible to join the Boston Marathon next year, to show that Boston will not be cowed. 

There is no pattern that indicates when someone is going to do something as abhorrent as these brothers did. Ultimately, whenever we see acts of individuals like this, it’s because they see no other recourse for themselves; it could be Boston, Columbine, or Newtown. There are no excuses, but neither is there a logic. All we can do, Radon and I agree, is try to work together to build better, stronger, more resilient communities, and think about how we can provide hope for all people in our reach. We are all in this together.