Why would anybody want to kill innocent people? That's what Americans ask after every terrorist attack, particularly those carried out by foreigners.
Our national cluelessness begs the question: Why do people blow up our embassies, bomb our ships, fly planes into our buildings, (try to) blow up their shoes and their underwear? They do it (partly) because we can't imagine why anyone would do such a thing.
Studies point to a number of factors. Some of these may help trigger the kind of violent "self-radicalization" that reports indicate may have led Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Kyrgyzstani brothers of Chechen descent, to detonate bombs at the Boston Marathon.
Was it psychological alienation? "I don't have a single American friend," Tamerlan, 26, supposedly the instigator of the attack, said. Some studies find that some self-radicalized terrorists are made after they suffer a disappointment, causing a person to graduate to violent direct action. Some even blame the involvement of Dzhokhar, 19, on reports that he was a pothead.
It's pretty safe to say we'll never be able to point to one, or two discrete factors as the "causes" for the choice to kill another person.
Like the drone war, the Boston Marathon bombings were a political act.
At this point, my best guess is that this was an attempt to strike back at the United States in its post-9/11 "great war of civilizations," or Christian "crusade," as George W. Bush called it. Authorities who questioned Dzhokhar in his hospital bed say that he and Tamerlan wanted to defend Islam from attack.
You can argue that the brothers' politics were wrong. That their tactics were counterproductive. But we can't understand why unless we dig into those politics.
Which is something that the American media refuses to do. Which increases the odds of future attacks. Terrorism is not prima facie the act of a nut. Terrorists don't terrorize for fun.
"Terrorism is the tool of the weak, used by disaffected groups or minorities to oppose the rule and (as they see it) the oppression of an established and militarily superior power," wrote former diplomat Marc Nicholson in "An Essay on Terrorism" in 2003. "Because it is resistance on the cheap, terrorism often emerges out of civil society rather than state sponsorship, because oppressed civilian groups, lacking control over governmental machinery, can summon little or no regular military force able to confront their 'oppressor' in conventional military terms."
We like terrorists. Some of them, anyway. During World War II, German occupation forces characterized the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto uprising as "terrorists." We view these doomed Jews, who fought to the death, as noble. The Afghan mujahedeen who struggled against the Soviets during the 1980s were terrorists to the USSR, "freedom fighters" to Ronald Reagan.
This, of course, is how radical Islamists see themselves: as heroic fighters in a resistance movement against a cruel oppressor. They're principled, willing to sacrifice everything for their cause.
Since 9/11, our leaders have repeatedly told us that "they" "hate our freedoms," but of course, this is nonsense.
Self-styled Islamist resistance organizations like al Qaida haven't garnered widespread support because terrorism against civilians is counterproductive. As Che Guevara wrote, "terrorism [is] a measure that is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people and destroys a large number of lives that would be valuable to the revolution."
However, as Guevara continued, terrorism directed against government or military officials can be legitimate: "Terrorism should be considered a valuable tactic when it is used to put to death some noted leader of the oppressing forces well known for his cruelty, his efficiency in repression, or other quality that makes his elimination useful."
After 9/11, even some Americans viewed the Pentagon as a legitimate military target. Conversely, arguments that the World Trade Center, as a hub of a "technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire," was an acceptable target, were rejected. The WTC victims enjoy an exalted sainthood in popular culture.
No would-be revolutionary who knows history would have targeted the Boston Marathon. So, let's agree that the brothers' tactics sucked. That what they did was evil. But what of their political motivations?
One would have to be blind not to understand why Muslims are enraged at the United States: Gitmo, drones, propping up dictators, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, the list goes on. And yes, Chechnya--where the Russians slaughtered thousands of innocents while their American allies silently cheered them on.
But few of us know about that. Which gets us back to: Why'd the Boston bombers do it? To get us to pay attention. So we'll force "our" government to stop what they're doing in Muslim countries.
But that'll never happen until we know what "we're" doing.