Boston Bombing Aftermath: If It's Not About Islam or Foreign Policy, Then What?

04/22/2013 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Now that it looks as if we know who carried out last Monday's Boston Marathon bomb attack and how, our understandable fascination with a grisly story like this of widespread impact settles firmly on the why. The search for answers to this has included media emphasis on the alleged perpetrators' origins in conflict-scarred Chechnya or their ties to a strict version of Islam. Yet the many years that the Tsarnaev brothers lived in the Boston area and the unlikelihood that they acted without foreign support means that we most look at the sadly similar instances of mass violence in our own American society in tandem with events in Boston to the extent it makes sense to generalize at all.

And so, understanding the basic common point shared by the Oklahoma City bombing, the Aurora and Columbine mass shootings in Colorado, the Virginia Tech rampage and Boston last week, an obvious question emerges: why do so many young men engage in mass killing in the United States?

There are a variety of possible answers to this question, based on what we know about the who and how in all of these situations, making somewhat irrelevant the particular ideology and mental state that each young man allowed to over-ride his prior relatively normal life.

I offer some tentative ideas below in the hopes that we can connect the dots of why events like Boston, if they in fact make sense to see as part of a pattern, may actually have some common roots that we as a society full of many positive qualities can dig up in favor of something more nourishing.

(1) Maybe it's about high expectations and frequent disappointments in a society that inflates individual dreams. Many of the young men who turned to violence were university students who had failed to thrive in academic programs that were already not automatic gateways to success. Central to our national identity, and amplified by reality shows, is the idea that anyone can become rich and famous in the U.S. Of course, the true reality in the U.S., as in many places, is that this is increasingly rare, particularly with our ever-growing skewing of economic holdings in the hands of a tiny few. Do very public pressures of doing well in a large country in which this is not easy make it easier for young men who can see their dreams deflating to give up, tune out and lash out?

(2) Maybe it's not about the U.S., but rather alienation in relatively open societies. While we await what I believe would be important data on how frequent violent attacks by young men are in proportion to overall population in countries like the U.S., it could well be that our nation is not all that unusual in at least the propensity of this type of anger to play out in tragic ways. I certainly appreciate that questioning our society in particular after an event like Boston may seem unfair or even problematic. Given that young men kill in Europe as well as the U.S., is there something, even possibly inevitable, about contemporary open societies in today's globalized setting that breeds frequent alienation or antipathy? If so, what?

(3) Maybe it's about the technology #1 -- firearms. It is not a cheap political point to note that big guns made a real difference to how many victims piled up in Colorado and Virginia. Guns mattered to the bizarre endgame of the Boston bombing too. Without claiming that stricter gun control in the U.S. would make a small subset of young men who live in the US less likely to become killers, the means of killing available to these young men could well account for some of the devastation the actual attacks bring. Which is why so many Americans now seem to favor at least some stricter gun regulation.

(4) Maybe it's about the technology #2 - mass communication. But there may be less obvious technologies that have enabled mass violence by young men in the US - the Internet. As much as I love social media, our increasing ability to link with people who may seem to share our perspectives but have no real ties of mutual obligation with our lives facilitates the sort of alienation from we saw in the social media postings of the late elder Tsarnaev brother. Over and above the information it carries on how to build homemade bombs, does the Internet help some people find imagined community at the expense of real one?

(5) Maybe it's about the culture. Most of us have some awareness of the bizarrely bellicose nature of some of American media culture today, whether its celebrity-stalking paparazzi or shock talk radio/TV. But our national media don't just reward incitement; they facilitate passing the blame. For many, including myself, consuming some media is a confusing exercise in verbal bomb-throwing. Do the fears or rage that some media churn up well up violent responses where they may already exist? This broad a question has a more concrete context in the current push to charge the surviving Tsarnaev brother with federal crimes, apparently in part so that this very man whose capture alive elicited widespread celebration can be convicted with the death penalty. Our country's record of incitement, irresponsibility and incarceration is unusual enough in comparative terms to make me wonder about subtle amplifications to some young men's potential for mass killing.

I have other possible theories about why young men carry out highly dramatic violence in the contemporary U.S.. But what are yours? It seems to me time to turn away from the things that make the Boston bombing an aberration, in the hope of looking for less simple, if more disturbing, possible patterns that the better angels of ourselves might address.