Why are terrorists so often men?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was performing a kind of masculinity through public destruction

Published April 25, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev                                    (AP/The Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie)
Tamerlan Tsarnaev (AP/The Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie)

"Losers" was what their uncle called them, and based on what we've learned since, it was Tamerlan Tsarnaev who fit society's measure for being one. Not that he didn't try to suggest otherwise. According to the Boston Globe, though "the older brother liked to look like a man of means, once posing for a photo in front of a gleaming Mercedes sporting a long wool scarf and white leather slip-on shoes," it was all an act. And anyway, it was his wife Katherine's long hours as a home healthcare aide that kept the family afloat, not Tamerlan's boxing prowess or the odd jobs he occasionally worked.

We don't know why Tamerlan and his brother blew up the Boston Marathon -- we may never really know -- but we do know that in doing so, they were performing a kind of masculinity that took control of the city through public destruction.

"Large public acts of terrorism are very public displays of masculinity, making a statement in the biggest way possible," says Abby Ferber, a sociologist at the University of Colorado who has studied white supremacist groups and masculinity. In her work, she said, she often encountered a "vulnerability to their sense of masculinity whether it's their relationship with their father, their culture. And there are a limited number of ways in the culture to show your masculinity." In the absence of the traditional forms of masculinity -- including financial or social power -- "you're more likely to see extreme means. They're showing that they're real men, man enough to do something like this."

Once, Tamerlan's violence had been on a smaller scale -- directed at that woman at the financial head of his table. Friends of Katherine's told NPR that Tamerlan flew into rages, calling her a slut and a prostitute and throwing things at her. He was arrested in 2009 on a domestic violence charge relating to a different woman. (Dzhokhar seems to have been more like those affable, slightly aimless boys who coast by on charm, with a "permanent stench of marijuana" in his room, according to the Globe.)

We are accustomed to seeing lone gunmen as disaffected and angry men -- 61 of the 62 mass murderers of the past 30 years tracked by Mother Jones are male --  and those labeled as terrorists as impelled by a larger and more organized political or religious motivation. But as the sociologist of masculinity Michael Kimmel wrote after 9/11, these are not so easily separated. He also wrote, "The terrors of emasculation experienced by lower-middle-class men all over the world will no doubt continue, as they struggle to make a place for themselves in shrinking economies and inevitably shifting cultures. They may continue to feel a seething resentment against women, whom they perceive as stealing their rightful place at the head of the table, and against the governments that displace them. Globalization feels to them like a game of musical chairs, in which, when the music stops, all the seats are handed to others by nursemaid governments."

Interestingly, the best-known exception to the rule of gendered terrorism are Chechen women, who according to a 2010 analysis made up over 40 percent of Chechen suicide bombers over the course of a decade, in 42 separate incidents involving 63 people in all. In the Russian press, according to an analysis by Alisa Stark, these women were seen mostly in relation to men: as "zombies" (blindly following the leadership of men) or "black widows" (traditionally feminine but driven to violence by bereavement). But the Tsarnaevs did not bring their sisters along, and their actions don't seem to have been nearly so specific or informed.

Instead, the Tsarnaevs were serially mobile immigrants — they were Chechens who lived in Kyrgyzstan, Dagestan and Kazakhstan before ending up in the U.S., apparently uneasily in the case of Tamerlan. In the later part of his life, he suddenly sought new clarity in Islam, a project his wife and mother also participated in as they began to cover themselves according to standards of modesty.

Unlike other famously violent men who found identity in groups of other militant men, the Tsarnaevs seem to have been able to participate in the hyper-masculine act of terror without ever having had to meet with another person (though evidence of formal involvement or training may still be unearthed). They represent, in the words of the New York Times, "the kind of emerging threat that federal authorities have long feared: angry and alienated young men, apparently self-trained and unaffiliated with any particular terrorist group, able to use the Internet to learn their lethal craft." They sound not very different from the male-dominated swarms on the Internet, the ones Photoshopping images to prove their conspiracy theories. Tamerlan read Infowars and posted about jihad. Dzokhar claimed they learned how to make bombs from al-Qaida's English language Internet magazine. If the Tsarnaevs had never become suspected terrorists, we might know them by another label: trolls.

But instead, we know them as people who made their destructive fantasies a reality. Nadine Ascencao, the ex-girlfriend who in 2009 reported to the police Tamerlan had slapped her in an altercation over another woman, told the Journal, "He was just like a normal person that sometimes like wanted to scare kids in high school but that was it. Just a tough guy."

"He was always tough," she repeated, but "never really did anything major."

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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