As Boston emerges from its recent lockdown and as America struggles to come to terms with the recent tragedy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, perhaps one of the most disturbing features of the events may be found in the persons of the bombers. The two brothers responsible for the terror and the carnage were to all who observed them completely normal people, not unlike everyone else around them. Boston is a great city, full of ethnic and religious diversity, and it is not unusual to find people there of foreign ancestry. The brothers who planned and carried out the acts of terror, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar by name, seemed to be (in the words of one person who knew them) “just normal American kids”. A classmate of theirs described the younger brother as “so normal, no accent, an all-American kid in every measurable sense of the word”. Friends said that he laughed at everyone’s jokes and tried hard to get along with everybody. A youth counsellor who went to school with the older brother described him as “just a big friendly giant”. He had a wife, Katherine, and a young daughter. After he won a Golden Gloves boxing match he told a local newspaper, “I like the USA…America has a lot of jobs”. So how did these normal American kids become the Boston bombers? How did the friendly giant become the terrorist?
We easily imagine that people who end up doing terrible things must be monsters, misfits, drooling misanthropes who are utterly unlike those around them. That is a comforting thought, because it means that we can identify them in advance, and take warning. It shakes us to discover that often people who do monstrous things do not look or act outwardly monstrous, and that they seem to be alarmingly like everybody else.
This contains a cautionary tale for us all. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were not the product of bad seeds, born with innate tendencies toward evil and depravity. They chose to take the path that led them to do evil acts, one decision at a time. At time of writing, the story of their journey down that path is not known, but we can be sure that the journey was a gradual one. The friendly giant did not go to bed on Monday thinking, “I like the USA”, and wake up Tuesday planning to set off two bombs to kill its innocent citizens. Somewhere in his young life he listened to lies, and let those lies take root in his heart. He chose to listen to this voice, and not that one; to decide upon one road, and not another one. Each choice and each decision led him a little further away from sanity and love, and each step of his journey led him into spiritually smaller and smaller rooms. The road to delusion is travelled, like all roads, one step at a time.
The lesson to be learned from this? “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). It is possible for anyone to start down evil roads. That road may not lead to acts of terror, or even acts of crime, that does not mean that it will not ultimately end in hell. The fall to which St. Paul was referring, for example, did not involve acts of crime or terrorism, but acts of idolatry, which if embraced would lead to hell all the same. The scary fact and the abiding lesson is that the road to hell is also travelled one step at a time, and is travelled gradually. If we harden our hearts to love and to God, this sclerosis occurs over time, in a series of small and seemingly insignificant decisions. We may scarcely notice that our love is cooling, that our prayers are becoming more and more infrequent, that anger increasingly forms the background of our lives. We descend down a slow and gentle incline, always downward, its fatal progress hardly perceptible from one day to the next.
The truth is that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are not unlike all of us. They simply chose poorly, and kept on choosing poorly until their choices were evil. We may learn from their terrible example, and keep watch over own hearts, lest we also fall and our hearts become hardened. A good way to start this inner watchfulness against hardness of heart might be to pray for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar as well as for their victims. And may the good Lord protect all.