Behind the Boston Bombing, a Busted American Dream

The Tsarnaev brothers’ murderous impulses may have stemmed from economic failure.

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A man walks out of his home in a bath robe as police surround a home while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., on April 19, 2013.

Many factors obviously drove the Tsarnaev brothers to reject peaceful living and mount a violent crusade that allegedly culminated in the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013. One of them was the kind of debilitating economic struggle many Americans have endured during the last several years.

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As investigators piece together the chain of events that turned 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev from unassuming immigrants into bloodthirsty radicals, they'll focus on the role of Islam and possible links to terrorist groups. But a more mundane and home-grown type of pressure appears to have played a role: the inability to get ahead. Terrorism experts, in fact, often cite a lack of economic opportunity as a primal cause leading aggrieved young men toward violence as a way of expressing their frustration over stunted ambition.

Tamerlan, the older brother, seems to have been the instigator of the bombing scheme, according to news reports. He also endured a string of disappointments in his early 20s, as his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxer, a college graduate and an immigrant success story unraveled one after the other. By the time he turned to violence as a means of expressing himself, Tamerlan may have first become an economic "loser," as his uncle described him as after the bombings, before becoming a sociopath intent on mass murder.

Sometime around 2009 – when the Great Recession was fully metastasized – Tamerlan seems to have pivoted from a secular life of studying, partying and boxing to a more austere lifestyle dictated by strict Islamic beliefs. Personal problems, no doubt, contributed to the shift, but money woes also permeate Tamerlan's emerging biography.

The boys' father, Anzor Tsarnaev, was an ethnic Chechen who got a job with the government of Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s but was fired after war broke out in Chechnya in 1999, according to the Wall Street Journal. Anzor had long dreamed about coming to the United States, and he finally made it here sometime around 2002. But his English was poor and he struggled to find regular work as a mechanic. His wife, Zubeidat became a cosmetologist but apparently didn't earn enough to offset the family's money problems. The Tsarnaev parents split up about two years ago and returned to separate homes in Dagestan, where they're from.

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Many people who immigrate to America become blue-collar workers or small-business owners who scrimp to pay for their kids' education and provide a better life for the next generation. The Tsarnaevs only made it halfway through that familiar narrative, however. They may have scrimped, but the money ran short during a decade in which jobs became scarce, U.S. incomes fell, and the American Dream became a cruel joke to millions of new home owners who suddenly felt sucker-punched by ballooning mortgage payments and plunging home values.

Tamerlan seems to have morphed from an optimistic graduate of a renowned high school to an embittered twentysomething at a dead end. His once-promising boxing career petered out, as do the professional ambitions of many teenage athletes. But there was no second act to fall back on. Tamerlan had to drop out of Bunker Hill Community College because he couldn't pay the modest tuition. Like millions of other Americans, he struggled to find a job in an economy that had become unforgiving. Meanwhile, he got married and had a child, with fresh bills that, as any new parent knows, can compound economic stress.

The larger Tsarnaev family ended up living on public assistance in Cambridge, Mass. When Anzor, the father, became ill – without health insurance, most likely – he returned to Dagestan, where he got medical treatment. The boys' mother left as well.

News reports have pointed out how Tamerlan's attitude toward the United States seems to have soured as he endured these travails. But so did the attitudes of many others, including scores of Americans who have lived in this country their whole lives. Lost dreams are obviously no excuse for terrorism, but falling living standards and higher barriers to success are a new and troubling phenomenon afflicting American society in many pernicious ways.

The younger brother, Dzhokhar, had many friends who described him as smart, personable, and not nearly as strident as his older brother. Yet Dzhokhar had recently failed several classes at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he was a student, and he may have begun to feel the same kind of financial pressure that had become familiar to his older brother by then.

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Ruslan Tarni, the two brothers' uncle, said in a remarkable interview before TV cameras that his nephews' biggest problem was "not being able to settle themselves" into American society the way other immigrants do. On one hand, that's self-evident. But the Tsarnaev brothers also struggled in a tough new economic environment that's unsettling even to many die-hard Americans. It may still be the land of the free, but America has also become the home of the tragically disappointed.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.