Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Too Soon For a Book On the Boston Bombers?


This week, barely a month after the Boston Bombings, Riverhead books announced their plans to publish a biography of the Tsarnaev brothers. Masha Gessen, author of the well-publicized Putin biography The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, has been hired to write the biography, due in part, no doubt, to her qualifications: she has reported from Chechnya in the past, and is fluent in Russian and EnglishThe purpose of this new project is to learn about the Tsarnaev's struggle — and failure — to assimilate to an American way of life, and hopefully to understand the sources that may have influenced them to commit the atrocious acts on April 15.

While this biography's goal to take a holistic look at the brothers' journey from Chechnya to Boston is admirable, the timing is insensitive. The knee-jerk reactions of anger and helplessness should run their course before true understanding of the brothers, unmarred by bigotry and hatred, could begin. 

Perhaps this biography is an important first step in dissociating the word "terrorist" from "Muslim" or — even worse — "Arab." It may ensure that the suspects are not deprived of their humanity; providing some understanding of what their motives might have been could help bring a certain amount of closure. But arranging this project in the midst of a media storm smacks of opportunism. I can understand a lengthy interview with extended members of the Tsarnaev family, or a well-reported magazine article a few months from now. But the investigation is still ongoing, and Dzhokhar has yet to see trial. As the events leading up to the bombing unfold, reporting about the brothers' past should be as comprehensive as possible to clear the way for a project of a broader scope down the road. When the bombing has left the news cycles for good and the reporting has ceased, and then the assemblage of the facts of a larger picture can begin. Only the passage of time will allow for the objectivity necessary for a biography that needs to paint a sensitive yet balanced portrait of these two troubled brothers.

The curious timing also raises a series of uncomfortable questions: what about these suspects story is so compelling that research for a biography must begin right away? Is it their Chechen origins? The fact that they are, as Riverhead put it, "homegrown terrorists?" Is it a compulsive need to profile our enemies? Or is it a subconscious need to distinguish these bombing suspects from Al-Qaeda or the prisoners at Guantanamo?

There is still too much raw emotion, incomplete facts, and unanswered questions surrounding the Tsarnaev brothers to start such an ambitious project. Once enough time has passed and the shattered Boston communities have begun to heal, the American people might be ready to receive the Tsarnaev's story. Until then, I advocate that the victim's families be allowed to grieve in peace.