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Carl Hiaasen: It’s too easy to become a terrorist

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Thursday, May 9, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Authorities say that the two brothers who allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon were probably “self-radicalized.”

The media have embraced this catchy term, partly because of the assurance it seems to offer: Don’t worry, folks — Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev weren’t recruited and deployed by al-Qaida or any other terrorist group; they hatched their own plot with no tactical help from abroad.

That might well be true, but little comfort can be taken from it.

Some of the most notorious acts of political violence in our history were carried out by pissed-off loners or impromptu zealots who belonged to no organized cabal.

By modern definition, Lee Harvey Oswald was self-radicalized. So was Sirhan Sirhan. Ditto for hermit Ted Kaczyinski, the Unabomber.

And who was more self-radicalized than Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the creeps who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995?

Everyone who sets out to create blood-soaked headlines finds a way to rationalize it. Murder in the name of God, Allah or patriotism is the oldest excuse in the book.

Once caught, the killers seldom admit they did it just for a sick thrill. OK, I’m a loser and my life is crap, so I decided to do something really outrageous.

Self-radicalized terrorists can be scarier than organized cells, because the cells are easier to track and their agendas are less opaque. They wave their hatreds like a flag.

In Boston, the older Tsarnaev brother and apparent mastermind of the bombings was loving life until three years ago. According to interviews with friends and family, Tamerlan’s dream had been to become a professional boxer and earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

He wore flamboyant white fur and snake skins, and trash-talked his opponents in the ring. He was a good fighter, too, twice the Golden Gloves champ of New England.

Then the rules changed. Tamerlan wasn’t allowed to box in the Tournament of Champions because of his immigration status — he was a legal permanent resident, not a full U.S. citizen.

Disappointed, he quit boxing. He didn’t work a regular job. His wife, a healthcare aide, paid the family’s rent. The Tsarnaevs also received food stamps and welfare payments.

Tamerlan tried community college but soon dropped out. He grew a beard and became increasingly interested in Islam, the religion of his Chechen and Dagestani heritage.

Last year he went back to Dagestan for six months without his wife and daughter, a trip being scrutinized by the FBI and Russian authorities. So far, though, Tamerlan hasn’t been connected to any terror group that has targeted America.

His path to Boylston Street, as presented in law enforcement’s scenario, is at once amateurish and harrowing: Older brother returns to the states and enlists his impressionable younger brother, a pot-smoking college student with good grades, plenty of friends and no known hostility against this country.

Together the two of them assemble bombs from an Internet recipe using kitchen pressure cookers, fireworks, nails, ball bearings and remote control mechanisms from toy race cars. Then they go to the Marathon, place the devices in the crowd and stupidly hang around to watch the detonations.

A professional operation it was not. The brothers had no idea there were video cameras all over the place. No disguises, no getaway plan, no fake passports, no money, no plane tickets, no car (Dzhokhar’s was in a repair shop).

This, we are told, is the new face of terror. Spontaneous and rudimentary.

A disgruntled young athlete, his career stymied, violently attacks the country that he’d once hoped to represent in the Olympics. Maybe Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been “self-radicalized” into an Islamic fanatic.

Or maybe he was just furious because a lack of U.S. citizenship papers had kept him out of the biggest boxing match of his life. Maybe it was that simple.

Tamerlan is dead, and Dzhokhar might or might not reveal the motive for the bombing. Clearly, though, it wasn’t the act of two crazy persons.

Cold and twisted? Obviously. But not crazy.

Even more sobering is the ease with which the brothers put their plan in motion. These days, anybody with a laptop and a grudge can arrange a massacre on a shoestring budget.

You don’t need fake IDs. You don’t need special training. You don’t even need to be very smart.

All you need is the one dark impulse.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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