Learning from mass murder: we must pay attention to our young men

If this past week had been written up as a movie script, I would have rejected it as totally over-the-top, beyond belief.

Two young Chechen immigrants successfully wreak mayhem and turn a city upside down with their improvised explosive devices, in the very same week that the U.S. Senate Republicans successfully beat back a bill designed to stiffen background checks for gun purchases.

Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords

The beautiful, brave Gabrielle Giffords publishes an impassioned piece in The New York Times, condemning the cowardly Senators who put the interests of the National Rifle Association over and above the interests of the American people.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, an explosion in a chemical fertilizer factory flattened a whole neighborhood, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 200.  The cause of the blast is still unknown.

And the whole middle section of the country was inundated by heavy rains, storms and severe floods.

Fire, air, earth and water, all the elements seem to be drawn into an intensified dance these days, speeded up along with the 24-hour news cycle.

As the bizarre manhunt for the two Chechen bombers unfolded, and the whole country went into virtual “lockdown” in sympathy with the people of Boston and eastern Massachusetts, it felt like we were suddenly waking up to find ourselves in Baghdad.  Things like that don’t happen here.

Until they do.

boston-bomber-suspect-dzhokhar-tsarnaev I don’t have TV in the house, so I got most of my information on the situation in Boston from print media and radio.  But even the few pictures I saw were enough to convey the sense that the official response to these boys’ stupid act of random violence was hugely disproportionate.

Against a lone 19-year-old kid, thousands of law enforcement officers of every stripe were deployed, in full riot gear, toting rifles, traveling around the deserted streets in armored vehicles.

The kid was presumed to be “extremely dangerous.”

How dangerous could one kid be?

I understand that the concern was that he might have had a bomb or a suicide vest that he could detonate at the very end.

But that is not the way the story went.  In the end, he came out with his hands up, just one stupid, confused kid who surrendered to the police without a peep.

His life is over.

Ours will go on.

In the wake of this latest act of violence within our own borders, we need to take a good hard look at the role of the U.S. as a fomenter of violence, both at home and abroad.

Unknown-1 Not only is the U.S. the largest exporter of arms and weaponry in the world, but we are also the biggest developer of violent video games worldwide, the ones I am betting those Chechen boys loved to play.

Why should we expect that we can promote violence by all kinds of channels, and remain immune to it within our own borders?

What goes around comes around.

If we were serious about wanting peace and security, we would start by radically shifting our focus from creating implements of destruction—be they chemical fertilizers, assault weapons or games that encourage violence—to waging peace.

Waging peace—what would that look like?

One of the most urgent tasks is to change the way young men are socialized.

Let us not for a moment forget that every single act of mass violence that has taken place here in the U.S.—every single mass shooting, every single bombing—has been the work of young men.

Young men are do-ers.  They have heroic dreams—and in Western culture, it’s the young men who can slay the dragon or vanquish the ogre who are considered heroic.

We can honor and nourish that warrior spirit in our young men in ways that celebrate heroes who use their strength and talents productively, to safeguard ordinary people.

I suspect that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is someone who would have made an excellent warrior for good.  He was obviously smart, resourceful and could handle himself well under great pressure.

For reasons as yet unknown, he–like Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, Norway gunman Anders Breivik, Aurora, Colorado gunman James Holmes and so many other young men whose names stand for infamous mass murders—chose to walk on the dark side.

We need to be paying attention to the accelerating rate of these crimes.  They are a sign of the dark times we are living through.

Those of us who believe in peace must recommit ourselves to raising our own internal lights higher, beacons for others to rally around.  Those of us who have the great responsibility of raising the next generation of young men—parents, teachers, employers, mentors—must recognize the tremendous importance of our task.

In the past thirty years, there has been a great deal of attention paid to rethinking the way we socialize young women.  This is definitely essential work.  But we forget about our young men at our own peril.

Leave a comment


  1. What a wonderful blog post Jenny. You hit on all the points running over and over in my head. Thank you.

    There was one area of this tragedy I am having struggles with and I would be interested in your thoughts, as you also referred to it in your blog post.

    A book I read recently called ‘Through the Glass’ was written from the point of view of the wife of a perpetrator of violence. Her story is that her husband, one month after they were married, committed a heinous sex crime. He had also been in jail for murder as a young man. He had been out of jail and a model parolee for nearly ten years, with lots of healthy moving forward accomplishments to his name, yet when the second crime was committed the media painted him as someone who just got out of jail.

    These two men are Chechen immigrants, yes, but the 19 year old has spent more time in America than in Chechnya. It doesn’t seem to capture the whole truth to refer to them only as Chechen immigrants especially when, as I understand it, he has been primarily schooled here and has legal residency here.

    I would love any illuminating thoughts you have around this as I’m really struggling with how they are being represented. I’m also struggling with how the media is not including their families much, if at all, in their thoughts and sympathies but that’s a whole other conversation.

    Thanks for any thoughts and thanks again for the blog post. It really resonated.

    This article from the New Yorker provided some food for thought regarding this issue and also resonated:


    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  April 21, 2013

      I quite agree with you–it’s very reductive to refer to them as just “Chechen immigrants,” as I carelessly did in this blog post. As things have developed–no Miranda rights, the younger boy unable to speak after a botched suicide attempt, the fuller picture of them that is emerging–I am no closer to understanding how to characterize him or his brother. What was the source of their resentment against the general American population, leading to their indiscriminate attack in Boston? I hope that the surviving suspect will recover enough to be able to explain to us what was going on with the two of them. He deserves at least the right to give us his side of the story.

  2. Yes, they are more than Chechen immigrants, The younger brother had become a citizen. But for so many, it is much easier to work up hate and panic by representing them as wholly “other.” To see them as “Americanized” or as someone’s beloved son or as a very young, immature vulnerable teenager makes it too hard for people, too complicated, and even sadder. Most Americans don’t want to be sad, confused or frightened when something happens, Americans want to be strong, safe, victorious and jubilant that “evil” has been captured. (I think this is true of all people, not just Americans and it is one of the reasons peace is so elusive). Ambivalence, doubt, questioning the amount of force and tactics used to capture him have no place in the media narrative, and it won’t be part of conversations in living rooms, by water coolers and barstools until the dust has settled and people feel safe again.
    Even then, I doubt that most people will compare this to the suffering our own government has caused in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. This is not the way most people want to think,
    It is always tempting for me to be extremely critical of the general public’s reaction and the media’s narrative (even while finding myself pulled into it on an emotional level). But it seems that only those who already feel/think as I do are the least bit interested in my critical assessments.
    You wrote: “Those of us who believe in peace must recommit ourselves to raising our own internal lights higher, beacons for others to rally around. Those of us who have the great responsibility of raising the next generation of young men—parents, teachers, employers, mentors—must recognize the tremendous importance of our task.”
    I think this is where the answer lies and I think it is an awesomely difficult task. I have five sons and as a single parent (since the youngest was 6 and the oldest was 14) I struggled mightily trying to teach compassion, forgiveness, peace-making. I think, for the most part I succeeded. (they are now ages 29-37) and their reaction to last week’s events have been more compassionate, nuanced and questioning than what that of many of their contemporaries.
    But here is part of the problem…people need and want to feel that they belong; they want to feel connected in the face of tragedy…that is how we survive these horrible events…raising flags, cheering, being “Boston Strong” , united as Bostonians and Americans. (I cried that the Yankees sang Sweet Caroline even as my rational mind was saying, “what does this have to do with solving the immense problems that underlie this bombing and its aftermath?”)
    So, somehow, taking that enormous need to feel connected and to feel that we are “on the right side” and devoting it to peace-making and environmental protection is our task. How to most effectively do this is a big question.
    Sorry for the rambling. I am still struggling with my own emotions regarding all of this!


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