It is difficult to escape the news reports concerning Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, caught at age 19 after his involvement in the horrific Boston Marathon bombing alongside his brother Tamlan, age 26. By all accounts, Dzhokhar was a nice guy, the last person anyone would suspect of terrorism. The blame circulates: it was Islam, it was American society, it was his brother’s dissatisfaction with his life, it was brainwashing. We are reminded of other attacks: the Columbine shooting carried out by teenage boys, or perhaps the Newtown shooting, where twenty six people died at the hands of a 20 year old. We are also told that this is a product of our modern, violence-crazed society, but the one common factor keeps getting ignored: these are very young men committing these atrocities.
Have we seen this before outside of warfare, where boys of this age would be praised for slicing and bombing their enemies, however defined, to bits?
Would we brand another young brother team a terrorist group if they robbed banks, trains and stagecoaches, and in the process of their robberies, killed anyone who stood in their way? The James brothers, forged from their experience as teens during the Civil War, formed an outlaw group of about a dozen men, terrorizing Missouri, Minnesota, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, West Virginia, Arkansas and Kansas. While the motive of financial gain may be clear, we must remember that they also felt that the Republican government was robbing them, so many of their robberies and intimidation tactics were political retaliation against what they felt was an unjust state.
Was Billy the Kid a terrorist? He started off as a “good boy” and who, in his teen years, would steal cheese and clothing out of necessity. When he fell under the spell of a gangster named John R. Mackie, the game changed. More nefarious father figures entered his life. The stealing escalated and, presumably in self-defense, he killed his first man at age 18. By the time of his death at age 22, he killed approximately 21 men. Most of these men, his supporters felt, “got what they deserved.” Billy the Kid did not target the innocent, but those who were outlaws and thieves, and he supported Native American and Mexicans who fought to reclaim their land from Western settlers. Was he misunderstood? The product of an unstable childhood?
Neither the James brothers nor Billy the Kid seem to have a clear motive or cause. They killed rivals, they robbed for profit, and they defended their territory against other gangs. Throughout the 19th century, unnamed boys living in cities such as Chicago and New York also preyed on the unaware, but most of the violence took place in their own communities, in neighborhoods such as Five Points. Until the Draft Riots of 1963, most New Yorkers wouldn’t know about the Dead Rabbits or Bowery Boys, just as most New Yorkers today don’t know the details of gang activity in marginalized neighborhoods. To those living in Five Points, were they terrorists, or lost boys? They were also killing, robbing and defending, but without a central cause other than survival in their poverty stricken world.
These were kids who missed the Civil War, the defining conflict of their generation, or were scarred by their participation in the War. Billy the Kid lived in its shadow, but Frank James participated in Quantrill’s Raid, where nearly 200 abolitionists were slaughtered. Frank James will live well into old age, but Jesse James barely makes it past thirty. Would a war have made a difference? We don’t often hear about the atrocities of war outside of war: the bomber who wipes out a village does not make our papers. Outside of war, the outlaw or terrorist teen is remembered.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rests in a hospital bed today, charged with crimes against the innocent in the name of a cause. I’m not sure if this is something Billy the Kid or the James brothers would recognize, although innocent victims most certainly met their end because of Billy the Kid and the James brothers. Would they understand Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and see themselves in him? And if so, will other disaffected teens continue to pick up arms until the next conflict unites them, and excuses the killing?