Tonawanda News

April 21, 2013

DUVALL: As Bartlet said, 'they weren't born like this'

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Like millions of Americans, I breathed a sigh of relief Friday night when the second suspect in Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon was located — alive — and taken into custody.

Too often in these cases those who grieve the loss of a loved one don’t get the answers they deserve about why it all happened.

A word of caution, though, for those wanting answers: They almost never satisfy our desire to understand what happened. By their very nature, irrational actions defy a rational analysis. Timothy McVeigh taught us that much, at least.

Still, I’m as curious as anyone to hear what this young man has to say for himself. To hear his friends speak so glowingly makes it difficult to square his actions with his reputation.

And that led me to recall a scene from my favorite television show of all time, “The West Wing.” Fictional President Josiah Bartlet is confronted with a horrific college campus bombing perpetrated by a group of domestic terrorists in the heat of his re-election campaign.

Sam Seaborn, the president’s astonishingly talented speech writer, is handed the task of reworking a campaign speech to reflect the nation’s grief at the horrific bombing. Standing before a group of teachers, Bartlet declares “they weren’t born like this!”

At just 19 years old, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn’t born like this. He learned it somewhere, from someone with a profoundly warped mind. Maybe his brother became radicalized on a trip to the troubled Caucuses region of Russia and brought along a little brother he was able to manipulate. Maybe it was something entirely different.

He learned this somewhere and we, his fellow citizens, must confront this reality. 

We cannot fundamentally understand a terrorist’s mindset or his values because we value our own lives, our own relationships, too much to consider doing something like what these brothers did.

The reality is people who love people and value the ties they have to their community do not become terrorists. Only people who cannot form those fundamental connections — or believe they have formed them with people who prefer chaos to the societal order — can consider terrorism on this scale an option.

Here’s the most disturbing thing about the biographies we’ve all come to know about these two young men: It appeared as though they had done exactly this. They emigrated to this country and assimilated. When their father moved back to Russia, they stayed behind. They had friends, made ties in the community, were not by any stretch destitute. 

That’s why I’m so glad Tsarnaev is alive to face important questions about where it all went awry. 

Not only was he not born this way, nothing in his outward appearance implied he had become this way. How does someone go from a prom-attending, popular high school athlete to the most wanted terrorist in America in less than two years?

When we conjure up the image of a terrorist we see a bearded, middle aged man in Islamic garb sitting cross-legged and talking into a camera about his desire to bring death to America.

We don’t picture a smiling, handsome teenager with floppy hair wearing a tuxedo with a red carnation boutonniere pinned to the lapel about to go to the prom.

No terrorist’s actions make sense but these actions make far less sense than most.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at