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James R. Russell

The Boston Marathon bombing: 10 years on

As scholars say, Erst die Tatsachen — First the facts. The two Chechen terrorists, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, who bombed the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day 2013, killing several people including a young child, and wounding or maiming for life hundreds more, were jihadis who committed their carefully planned and premeditated crime in the name of Islam. They were proud of what they did and the younger, surviving brother, who still awaits his condign sentence of death, has never shown any remorse. They had been on an FBI watchlist, just like their kindred Islamist extremists, the 19 Saudi and Egyptian Arabs who attacked the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, 12 years earlier. Last week, another Arab Islamist, this time a Palestinian, murdered an English Jewish woman and two of her daughters in the Land of Israel. They were on holiday, in their car on the way to lake Kinneret.

These various horrors touch us and befoul our lives. I am a New Yorker by birth: the attack on my hometown changed NYC forever. The bereaved Dee family, from Efrat, were close friends of my good friend R. Daniel Reiser, the greatest living scholar of the work of the Piaseczner Rebbe (“the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto”, author of the Esh Kodesh), Hy”d, who was a relative of my father, z”l. As for the Boston Marathon attack…

… It’s a spring afternoon in 2013, Patriots Day, and I’m a professor teaching the Junior Tutorial of the Near East Department at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a small class and that day it’s a little smaller, since one of my pupils is running the Marathon. Suddenly everybody’s cell phone is going off. Two bombs have just exploded near the finish line of the Marathon downtown across the Charles River, on Boylston Street. One student is a devout Muslim girl who wears a partial veil. Her father is an official of the Palestinian Authority. “I hope,” she says, “it wasn’t us.” Meaning Muslims. But I’m pretty sure it was, so I walk her back to her dorm after class to make sure she isn’t assaulted. But the streets are empty and preternaturally quiet.

My parents, who were still alive then, and my partner, who was still healthy then, had both come up from New York to see the exhibition on Easter Island I’d curated in Harvard’s Peabody Museum. That day, or was it the day before, I’d taken them there and we met a family from Washington whose 8-year-old boy was interested in Easter Island: I removed my hand-drawn map of the island and its antiquities from the display case, gave it to him, and invited him to come back in ten years as a freshman to study with me. Fortunately Mom, Dad, and Dennis weren’t interested in sports and hadn’t gone to see the Marathon: we met at my apartment for a quiet dinner: Dennis stayed for the week and my parents drove back home to NYC the next day.

Meanwhile life went on, as the FBI and the police looked for the terrorists. I’ve lived in Israel and have survived three terrorist attacks. After 9/11 I had been asked to analyze some sermons faxed from Saudi Arabia to the Cambridge mosque on Prospect Street off Central Square. The sermons, unsurprisingly, had praised the attacks as the noble work of jihadi warriors. The Boston area was and is a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, which flourishes in the anti-Zionist (i.e., anti-Semitic) petrie dish of “woke” university campuses and the like. What had happened in Boston, horrible as it was, was anything but surprising; and I figured the Feds would quietly go about their business and nab the culprits.

I lived then in a flat on the third floor of a building on Memorial Drive, on the Charles River. One bay window had a river view and I used to sit there in my rocking chair to read and work in the evening. Thursday night there was one siren and a speeding cop car. Then another, and another, till the street below was a wall of flashing lights and noise. I woke Dennis.

This is what was happening: the Tsarnayev brothers had killed an MIT cop, then hijacked a Chinese student’s car, planning to drive south and carry out a second attack in NYC. But the Chinese kid had escaped on Memorial Dr. when they stopped for gas, and had called 911. The Tsarnayevs then drove west to Watertown, just up the river from Cambridge. There they got into a gun battle with the police, and threw pipe bombs and a pressure-cooker bomb at them. The noisy cavalcade under our window was backup on the way.

Tamerlan, the elder brother, got out of the stolen SUV in Watertown and charged the police, who tackled him and attempted to arrest him. Dzhokhar stayed in the car and  gunned the motor to escape, running over and killing his brother in the process. Dzhokhar, who was wounded, abandoned the car farther up Mount Auburn Street and hid out under the winter tarp of a boat in the back yard of a house— all of one block away.

And there he stayed as the governor locked down the entire city. While we were all under virtual house arrest that Friday, thousands of heavily armed soldiers and cops, many in combat gear, roared into the area. Some landed in amphibious craft. Others came by helicopter and armored car. House-to-house searches were carried out. It was all very impressive but it turned up nothing.

Meanwhile a next-door neighbor called a friend of mine in Watertown: “There’s somebody in the boat in my back yard, George. What do I do?” George, a Marine vet with tours of duty in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places under his belt, suggested he call it in. In the meantime Governor Patrick had called off his “shelter in place” ukase (which even Obama had considered slightly de trop). Many of the heroes in blue had been down at Arsenal Mall eating donuts and posing for photos, but now they converged on the boat and started shooting wildly at it from all sides. George later told me that some of them had the hi-tech infrared telescopic sights of their fancy, newly-supplied military assault rifles turned the wrong way. The young terrorist had been decorating the interior of the pleasure craft in the meantime with plaintive jihadi sentiments suitable, except for spelling errors, for a Hallmark line of terrorist greeting cards. It’s a miracle he survived the fusillade to be arrested. It’s a miracle, and thank God for this one, that no policemen were hurt.

Tsarnayev was taken to hospital for treatment and subsequent questioning, and the conquering heroes paraded through Watertown, where delirious crowds cheered. For about a year, tee shirt and baseball cap hawkers plied a thriving trade in “Boston Strong” memorabilia. The city that normally fuels itself in resentment towards the bigger metropolis two hundred miles to the south (and, in particular, against the Yankees) finally figured it had something to pat itself on the back about.

But did it?

Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, a graduate of Cambridge’s Rindge-Latin high school, which is a few blocks and a world away from Harvard Yard, had worked for a time as a lifeguard at the university’s Blodgett Pool, where I swam every day. My friend George, whom you met a few minutes ago, had worked as the aquatics director and, knowing I spoke Russian, had introduced me to the young Chechen, who was eerily unfriendly, so there were no more poolside chats. George retired soon after the Marathon attack; my turn came three years later. I never did teach that eight-year-old about the culture of Rapa Nui. In the meantime, Tsarnayev recovered — Boston has the best medical care in the US — and was fit to stand trial.

He was sentenced to death, but as I write he is still enjoying government hospitality at the taxpayer’s expense. The Cambridge mosque put up ads in the T, Boston’s subway, about “Islam 101”, from which the otherwise uninformed reader might derive the impression that this best of all possible worlds has never seen a more peaceable, generous, tolerant, and all around ethical way of life than Islam, a religion that’s just the greatest thing since sliced bread. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper celebrated Passover 2022 by running an editorial endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel.

The totalitarian state of George Orwell’s 1984 has the oxymoronic motto, “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” He might have said instead, “Islam is peace.” But at least Orwell remembered to blame the Jews, our little tribe whose place is always in the wrong. The Enemy of the People in his novel is a fellow named Emmanuel Goldstein who is described as looking kind of like my grandpa’s old friend Leon Bronstein, a.k.a. Trotsky.

The Boston Globe‘s reporter David Filipov, whose father was killed in one of the planes on 9/11, wrote an investigative series on the Tsarnayev duo. Nobody is born a terrorist, so there must have been factors that contributed to the brothers’ career choice. Well, we have Stalin’s mass deportation of the Chechens as Nazi collaborators in 1944. There’s something. And when the Tsarnayevs came to the US their American Dream didn’t work out quite as they hoped for. A picture begins to emerge!

But wait. How come other survivors of Stalin’s repressions, other disenchanted immigrants, chose and choose to engage with life’s disappointments in other ways? Other ways, that is, then beheading three students, one of them a Jewish friend, in Waltham, Massachusetts— part of Tamerlan’s CV. Or planting two pressure cookers laden with explosives and shrapnel amidst a crowd of families, students, and other ordinary working people on their day off watching a foot race. Or killing a young MIT campus policeman. Or exchanging hundreds of rounds with the police on a quiet side street in Watertown. (I knew Watertown well, since it’s the center of Boston’s Armenian community and I taught Armenian. I used to shop at Arax Market every week. I even knew a fellow who lived in one of the modest frame houses that were peppered with bullet holes during the shootout.)

Netflix has released a three-part documentary for the 10th anniversary of the worst crime in the history of Massachusetts— one before which the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the judicial murder of Sacco & Vanzetti in 1927 pale in enormity. Predictably, various solemn talking heads inveigh against “Islamophobia.” Predictably too, the imam of the Cambridge mosque informs us that jihad has nothing whatever to do with violence, bigotry, or anything of the kind. Are you a sunny, friendly kid working a paper route to save up for a brand new bike? Bingo! Now that’s jihad.

Other parts of the documentary are excellent: the Boston Police and FBI are allowed to disagree on camera over strategy. Mr. Filipov discusses his research on the case in detail. The Russian FSB’s red flag (sorry, one couldn’t resist that) to the FBI about the Tsarnayevs is mentioned. We do get the ironic image of the wounded Dzhokhar walking one block to hide in a boat and inscribe his Islamist profundities while a million people are in lockdown and the D-Day landing’s re-enacted. The interviews with amputee survivors, the bereaved and their loved ones, are extremely well done. One must admire their boundless courage. The police and federal investigators did an amazing job and deserve the gratitude of every decent person.

Overall, the Netflix documentary is not bad, except for what seemed to me a disquieting whitewashing of the very real threat Islamist ideology represents. In America it is a horror that is always beneath the surface and periodically manifests itself. In Israel it is ubiquitous, in the full light of day, a constant menace.

Following the terrorist murders of his wife and two of his children in their car in Israel last week, the bereaved father, Rabbi Dee, spoke to the press with remarkable calm. He likened the demonization of Israel to a boy on a beach who kicks over a sandcastle a little girl has built. The adults present scold the girl for having provoked the boy by making something so elaborate and beautiful.

Rabbi Dee then suggested that everybody put an Israeli flag on their social media sites. I’ve gone one better. I used to have a little Israeli flag in my bay window back in Cambridge— the window that faced the Charles River, giant sycamores, and the road up which the police cars were speeding on that terrible night ten years ago. One evening a gang of teenagers crowded under my window and yelled, “He’s got a Jew flag! We’re gonna kill you, mother****er!” I opened the window and invited them to come and try. Then I called the Cambridge police to report a hate crime. They refused to take the report. In “liberal” Massachusetts, threats against Jews  seldom seem to count as hate crimes. I never was that big on “Boston Strong”. But I remember the Boston Marathon. So, following Rabbi Dee’s request, and in honor of my friend George and his lovely wife, please imagine I’m flying my flag here. It’s blue and white and has a Star of David in the middle. Imagine a motto on it: Israel Strong.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.