In the wake of our six-billionth national tragedy this month, I keep hearing one question when it comes to Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarneav (whose names I will literally never ever remember how to spell). More than anything, perhaps sometimes even more than outrage, people seem to want to know why: What motivated them? What could have possibly led two otherwise mediocre brothers to set off bombs, to blow up children, and to fuck with Boston.
Indeed, we as Americans (we as humans?) appear keen on filing the Marathon incident away into a pre-determined folder of Why Bad Things Happen. Was it terrorism? Was it politically motivated? Were they lonely and alienated in their non-native country? Were they tired of being asked for donations every time one of their friends ran a 5K? Were they just crazy?
A byproduct of my extremely cynical worldview (on a crocheted pillow, it would boil down to something like “People are awful human beings”) I don’t find myself as preoccupied with the Tsarneav brothers’ motive. Since there is nothing they could say or reveal (rather, that Dzhokhar could say or reveal) that would make me go, “Ohhhh, well that totally makes sense then,” their reasons for wreaking havoc in this country — which never appears to never have treated them with anything worse than apathy — are somehow frivolous to me.
Taking it a step further, I sometimes feel that attempting to publicize their justifications for the bombing does little except give those justifications undeserved exposure. Yes, I suppose I’d like to know whether they were linked to a broader group with additional targets, but then again maybe not. Maybe some part of me would like to trust that the authorities will suss that out, and leave the rest of us to forget the name Tsarneav post-haste, to drop the duo into the bucket of Stupid Awful Idiots Who Did Terrible Things But Otherwise Don’t Matter, not the bucket of Terrorists Whose Ideology We’ll Talk About for Decades to Come and Who Have Basically Defined Our Foreign Policy. It’s a tough balance — seeking justice for the victims, preparing for the possibility of a next time, and yet also finding a way to lessen the impact of these people, to avoid giving them the attention they so desperately want. It feels like getting bullied at school and being told to ignore it, that they’re only trying to get a rise out of you, that reacting is how they win.
I suppose the ideal solution is somewhere in between, something that allows us to get a degree of closure without elevating the plotting of a disturbed 19-year-old to a global terror threat, or a referendum on Islam. I also suppose that sometimes, in certain cases, it may matter why a killer kills, which brings me to A Thousand Cuts, one of my San Fran pick-ups and the first book to make its way out of the intimidating GABST kitchen table book pile.
A Thousand Cuts tells the story of a fictional school shooting in England, during which a young history teacher marched into an assembly (on bullying, no less) and shot one teacher and three students before turning the gun on himself. The story unfolds via an omniscient narrator, but interspersed throughout are the statements of various witnesses and acquaintances of the deceased: teachers and students from the school, parents of the victims, etc. What emerges is both a poignant portrayal of a school-shooting aftermath (coordinating memorial services, reporters hounding bereaved parents, faculty shouldering the task of resuming daily life) and, over time, a portrait of a teacher in distress. Without giving away too many details, suffice it to say that newbie history teacher Sam Szajkowski was bullied — by teachers who didn’t like him and by students who didn’t respect him. Indeed, what becomes clear over the course of A Thousand Cuts is that Szajkowski had a motive, one that almost, almost made me go, “Ohhhh, well that totally makes sense then.”
A Thousand Cuts is only a few years old (2010) and it’s a testament to the apparent longevity of school shootings that it could have been released yesterday. Moreover, we are still constantly facing the question of what makes a person kill people–numerous people, violently, en masse. And I can’t help but feel that for all the individual answers we’ve gotten — religion, politics, plain old-fashioned crazy — we don’t feel any closer to processing events like Boston, or to making sense of them. Personally, I don’t think we can, any more than we can truly get inside the brain of a serial killer, or a Nazi, or a warlord. I also don’t know that I want to get inside those brains.
This is a pretty bleak period in our nation’s history (interpret period to mean month, year or decade, depending on your level of pessimism) and thus a great time to read A Thousand Cuts. It’s not the most subtle book — on occasion, its themes feel almost shouted — but maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe we shouldn’t tiptoe around the issue of whether the “why” matters, and if it does when and what are we supposed to do with it. Because I find it hard to believe April 15, 2013 will be the last time we have to ask.
TITLE: A Thousand Cuts
AUTHOR: Simon Lelic
PAGES: 294 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Child Who, The Facility
SORTA LIKE: Tana French writes We Need to Talk About Kevin
FIRST LINE: “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it.”