Provocative and contrarian, Masha Gessen’s “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy,” is an argument-starter about the men behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
On several fronts, her portrait of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev coincides with the prevailing narrative that has emerged in the two years since the crime. Gessen’s account confirms that Tamerlan, the elder of the two, was angry and not very bright, and that both brothers were increasingly vocal about their Muslim faith in the months leading up to the tragedy.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in the ensuing manhunt, and Dzhokhar was arrested and is currently on trial. Though he pleaded not guilty, his lawyer — reportedly hoping to avoid the death penalty — has conceded that he and his brother carried out the bombing.
But the version of events set forth in “The Brothers” is notable for the ways in which it diverges from the accepted storyline. Unfortunately, Gessen’s most controversial assertions are her most thinly sourced. She suggests that Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been an FBI informant, and that the bureau, desperate to hide its collusion with a man who committed a terrorist act, might have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that other law enforcement officers never got a chance to question him.
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Gessen’s thinking goes like this: Because the FBI questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 and monitored him and his family, agents would have been likely to recognize him in surveillance camera images captured at the site of the bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds. Nonetheless, she writes, agents with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force didn’t initially identify the Tsarnaev brothers.
“A … logical explanation,” Gessen argues, “is that the person or persons who were in a position to recognize the brothers were consciously concealing this fact in order to protect their own or the agency’s reputation — either because it would look like the FBI had fumbled a solid investigative lead, causing tragedy, or worse, because the FBI had considered Tamerlan an informant.”
Even more incendiary is her suggestion that the FBI deliberately kept police at arm’s length as they were pursuing the brothers “because it needed to ensure that no other law enforcement got to Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the FBI had captured — or killed — him. In other words, the explanation that best fits the facts is a cover-up.”
Her assertions aren’t based on interviews with law-enforcement sources. Rather, they’re the products of supposition, on her reading of the relevant case files and media coverage. Gessen is not the first person to advance such theories; lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made similar allegations in court papers last year.
Gessen, the author of several books about Russian politics and history, is better on less contentious aspects of the brothers’ story. She travels to Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan, painting an evocative picture of the impoverished and strife-torn region the Tsarnaevs left behind, and she does similarly fine work in depicting the Boston area community that they joined when they immigrated in the early 2000s.
In Zubeidat and Anzor Tsarnaev, she finds parents who came to the U.S. for the customary reasons: They wanted a more stable home and better educational opportunities for their four children (they also have two daughters).
Ultimately, though, “The Brothers” is an attempt to explain what drove the Tsarnaevs, and on this front, it simply doesn’t do the job. Telling what by now a familiar story, Gessen recounts Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip from Massachusetts to Dagestan, where he spent half of 2012. Some journalists say this was a key period, one in which the elder Tsarnaev began to fully embrace the radical ideas that fueled his subsequent crimes.
Gessen believes there are flaws in this line of thinking. She says the brothers were susceptible to ridiculous conspiracy theories — they seem to have believed the American government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks — and she notes that in 2012 both began espousing extreme views in their personal and online relationships. But, she writes, it’s an oversimplification to say that the brothers were motivated solely by their increasingly radical views.
“What is truly lacking from the story,” she writes, “is a clear and accessible explanation for how two young men who appear to be very much like hundreds of thousands of other young men came to cause carnage in the center of their own city.”
You can’t help but feel that Gessen is erecting a facade of ambiguity to hide the gaps in her reporting. She seems to be saying that we’ll never really understand what informed the shocking actions carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers. But for a book that promises to elucidate “the road to an American tragedy,” that’s just not good enough.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen
Riverhead, 288 pages, $27.95; available Tuesday