I was riding across London in the top of a double-decker bus last Friday when the headline of a newspaper lying on the seat informed me of the Boston-area manhunt.
As we sailed through the streets on an unusually brilliant afternoon, I read the brief, uncertain text identifying one suspect, photographed in a white baseball cap as he stood on the side-line of the Marathon. It occurred to me at the time that he could have been just another student in what is, after all, a city of students. And then my mind turned for a moment to the people on that other London bus six summers ago, and to the sad thought that a student from my own university helped to plan the explosion that killed them.
Perhaps for that reason, what came to mind next was a British writer's attempt to make sense of the 2007 bombing, Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December, a state-of-Britain novel published three years ago. The novel follows two British fathers and their teen-aged sons, along with assorted other characters, through a single week at the end of 2008, as the banking world was shuddering into unprecedented chaos. One father, a hedge-fund manager and the novel's villain, has a teen-aged son at home, who is experimenting, perhaps dangerously, with drugs. The other father, a salt-of-the-earth South Asian chutney manufacturer, notices -- and tries valiantly to curb -- his own son's fascination with the Islamist slogans of a quietly dangerous older friend. The disturbing paradox at the book's core lies between very different but equally dangerous threats to civilization as we know it, the troubled teenager who falls into an extremist world-view, and the creepy-yet-socially-accepted 'masters of the universe' in the world of banking, who cheerfully rain down destruction on countless victims for the sake of their own financial gain.
At the time, reviewers welcomed the fact that Faulks -- better known for historical novels about emotionally wounded Brits during the First and Second World Wars -- had strayed onto turf previously owned by Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. But reviews were more muted about Faulks's effort to lend a thread of introspection to what was otherwise a vicious comedy of manners by imagining his way into the head of the young Hassan al-Rashid. One reviewer put it this way: "Can - and should - a middle-aged white Anglican attempt to enter the mind of a would-be Islamist terrorist?" In retrospect, the answer to that question seems to be a definite yes.
What stays with you about A Week in December is not the glittering parties of the villainous bankers and their trophy women, but the tea-shops and chance encounters of Hassan al-Rashid's hesitant, anxious search for an oasis of meaning and belonging in an unwelcoming environment. Hassan knows very little about the connections and intentions of the charismatic 'handler' whom he falls in with; he simply trusts, on the strength of little more than seemingly gentle manners, that the older man's judgement in ethical matters is superior to his own.
Faulks seems to have done his homework here: the jumble of alienated searching, limited information, and blind trust in an older and wiser figure adds up to a deft summary of what sociologists tell us about how radical movements cultivate the young people who end up doing their dirty work. Faulks does not in any sense condone Hassan's flirtation. He has us rooting, absolutely, for the parents and girlfriend who can tell that something is wrong and do their utmost to pull Hassan back from the edge. But the message is disturbingly clear: it not at all difficult to get a perfectly nice kid involved in something entirely monstrous. It goes without saying that it is far harder to understand what divides the ones who get who involved with something dangerous and then somehow come to their senses from the tiny minority who hurtle forward past the point of no return. On this point, Faulks can offer a novelist's insight, but no real answers.
Faulks and Hassan al-Rashid stayed with me as I went on to find out more about the surviving suspect in the Boston case. Not long after leaving the bus, I learned from a Facebook post that he had been the school-mate of a friend's son, and lived a few streets away from where I myself lived as a student. No name, no details. The tone of the post was that of a thoughtful mom musing sadly: what had turned a 19-year-old into a fugitive rather than a math champion or a male nurse? For a brief moment, he was simply somebody's son, a neighborhood kid who had somehow gone badly, dangerously wrong. My heart went out to his parents, to his teachers, imagining the desperate sense of failure they must feel. My heart went out to the fugitive himself, who I suspected -- correctly it turns out -- was by that time probably cowering somewhere, wounded.
And then, moments later, I discovered that I was now out of 'synch' with the rest of the world. Lurking just out of sight, two posts down, was a headline from the New York Times, identifying the two suspects. Now they had names, and the frame for the story had been established: they were Muslims, Chechnyans, terrorists. This was not going to be a soul-searching exercise about how to spot a teenager who is going off the rails. It was going to be a story about "us" and "them."
Over the weekend, details continued to filter in from Cambridge to feed my sense that the Dzokhar Tsarnaev -- now in custody -- had once been just another teenager, part of the lively multi-cultural neighborhood that sprawls between Harvard and MIT. An old friend sent a photo of boys in bow ties getting ready for a prom two years ago, with a smiling, sweet-looking Dzhokhar kneeling at the front. A story in a British newspaper about his older brother's wife and daughter brought back memories from my own student years in the same neighborhood, and fond thoughts of an old flame, a gentle loner-genius who seemed happiest one step closer to the edge than the rest of us. (He went on to join the Harvard team that was splitting the atom.) Chances to find a human connection to the tragedy of the Tsarnaev family were everywhere, if you were looking for them.
In the end, it turns out that this kind of thinking may be right after all. As the investigation of the Tsarnaev brothers progresses, early analysis suggests that the brothers were working alone, and that the influential older brother had developed his sense of purpose -- and method -- largely by browsing the internet. This fits well with the little-known fact that 90% of terrorist activity in the US is the work of individuals without any link to terrorist organizations. In other words, the difference between terrorism and criminal mental illness is difficult to identify, in those cases where a difference can be said to exist at all. How do you understand the difference between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Lee Boyd Malvo, the then seventeen-year-old accomplice of the Washington Sniper? It is too early to tell. And unlike A Week in December, it is a story that offers no hope of a happy ending.
Kate Cooper's Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women comes out in October.