Psychology Professor Clark McCauley Examines Boston Attacks

Posted April 25th, 2013 at 1:23 pm.

Clark McCauley is the Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. McCauley wrote the post below for the Psychology Today website in response to the Boston attacks.

The Radicalization of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
“Friction” mechanisms at work
Published on April 19, 2013, by Clark McCauley, Ph.D. in Friction

Many are asking how Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were moved to attack the Boston Marathon. If they have a political grievance as Chechens, shouldn’t they be attacking Russians? The sparse information available permits some explanation in terms of mechanisms of radicalization from McCauley and Moskalenko’s 2011 book, Friction: How radicalization happens to them and us.

1. A central mechanism of radicalization is political grievance. Chechens have been fighting Russians for many generations, and some Chechens interpret the conflict as Muslims versus Christians. In this framing, the U.S. and Russia are both Christian countries. More specifically, Al Qaeda members have a presence in Chechnya; some Al Qaeda members reportedly fought and died for Chechnya in the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004. As a culture, Chechens value loyalty: “My friend’s enemy is my enemy.”

2. Another mechanism of radicalization is love for someone already radicalized, someone who asks for help. This is likely how the younger sweeter brother was brought to join in the attack. Also, in more traditional societies, older brothers are expected to exercise some authority over younger. We note that the younger follows behind older brother in video from the Marathon finish line. One report suggested that the younger brother “idolized” his boxing-champion older brother.

3. Another mechanism of radicalization is unfreezing: loss of everyday connections and activities that keep most of us from radical change. There are indications that the older brother was unfrozen/disconnected in recent years. He posts “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” He was charged with assaulting a girlfriend in 2009. He is separated from his wife Katherine Russell, losing thus his connection with her and their three year old daughter. His friend Brendan Mess was murdered on September 11, 2011, in a case that has never been solved. His father became ill and left the family to live in Dagestan. It is important to be clear that unfreezing does not push an individual toward violence in particular, but only opens a door to new people, new ideas, and new directions.

In addition to motivation we need to consider means and opportunity. There are reports that the older brother traveled to Dagestan and Chechnya, Jan-Jul 2012. He took this trip when feeling disconnected, opening him to Al Qaeda or Chechen militant ideas and connections. The trip could provide an opportunity to learn bomb-making; legend to the contrary, this is not a skill easily learned from the internet. Finally, as long-time residents of the Boston area, the two brothers would know the crowd scene opportunity presented by the Marathon.

This post originally appeared on the Psychology Today Friction blog and is republished with permission.

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