Cambridge Wonders What Went Wrong with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

As Cambridge gets back to school, residents struggle to wrap their heads around the revelations of last week.

It’s been a few days now since we learned that the alleged marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lived on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, and it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did last week. I’ve lived in the city for the last five years, two of them in an apartment just down the street from the Tsarnaev brothers, and am sure I must have passed them by. My old roommate swears he played pick-up basketball with Dzhokhar. It boggles the mind.

Others around town have been equally jarred. “Friday is probably one of the worst days I will ever remember,” Ken Reeves, a Cambridge City Councilor since 1990 and three-time mayor of the city told me over the phone. “It’s shocking,” said Alice Wolf, who, between 1974 and 2012, served Cambridge on its school committee, city council, as its mayor, and in the State House as a legislator. “When we learned that the suspects were from Norfolk Street—Oh my god, I know exactly where that is,” she said.

Standing on a street corner near the Tsarnaev apartment on Friday, I met a teenager named Alex who told me that he knew Dzokhar, the younger brother who graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin in 2011, from their after-school program. Alex had been hanging around the police line that had been roped off while authorities looked for evidence, talking in a low voice on his phone and, with his eyes nearly squinted shut, looking distraught. We didn’t get much time to chat, but his connection to the apparent bomber hung with me—there can’t be many suspected terrorists in the world who were nurtured through their formative years with after-school programs.

But this is Cambridge. It’s the type of place where after-school programs have their own after-school programs. As the high school, along with the rest of the school system, opened its doors on Monday for the first time since the attack, superintendent Jeffrey Young told me that he’s continued to struggle with the same question: “How is it that someone can grow up in a place like this and end up in a place like that?”

That Cambridge is a liberal place is often put forth as a platitude, but the city’s ivy-covered caricature doesn’t do its complexity justice. With a population of about 105,000, Cambridge is two-thirds white, and a third minority. On the other hand, the school system is 35.5 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 37 percent white. Nearly 40 percent of its students qualify for free lunch, with most of them coming from families in subsidized housing. Over the years, Cambridge has strongly supported housing programs, leading to some 10,000 Cantabrigians, or about 10 percent of the city’s population, living in a subsidized arrangement. Even with so many students coming from such a small sliver of the population, the city funds its schools with $26,305 per student annually, nearly $5,000 more per student than the next closest district in the Boston area. Put another way, the much derided Cambridge liberals put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting both education and the needier among them.

That hardly means everything’s perfect. As I wrote about in the magazine a few years ago, there are deep-seeded racial tensions rooted in the school system. But the district has worked admirably to confront them, this year introducing new middle schools in an effort to close the stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students. For a student to emerge from this environment and become an alleged terrorist, to many, is simply heartbreaking.

“You say, my goodness,” Young reflected, “here’s this guy who grows up in a place that is, if not the most inclusive and diverse and welcoming and supportive community for kids from diverse backgrounds, I don’t know what is.”

Knowing that many of his students would be equally perplexed, Young and his teachers and administrators worked over the weekend to develop a program to help ease them back from vacation. At Rindge and Latin, instead of the normal schedule yesterday, each grade took a turn meeting in the auditorium for class-wide assemblies to discuss the marathon attack. Students were also given time later in the day to talk about it further, and counselors were on site.

“The mood was serious,” Young said. “It’s not like there was a heavy cloud of depression hanging over the school…Very pensive, that’s what I noticed. A lot of kids with their  finger on their cheek, just a pensive look.”

Young said he sat in on a few of the class-wide assemblies, which started mostly with logistical issues and pointers for how to deal with the media. Then the agenda opened up for kids to ask or say whatever they liked. “This is what was so incredible, because it showed the whole range of what that school is like,” Young said. Some issues that came up were “almost metaphysical,” he said.”Can a good person do a bad thing? Because a number of kids know, not so much the older brother, but the younger brother. And they sort of can’t believe that it happened.”

“There were questions from students about academic type topics,” he continued, “like, how come they didn’t read that kid his Miranda rights? And what’s this about the exception? Will they try him in a civil court or military court? How do they decide that kind of thing?”

“It was very Cambridge, in a great way.”

Naturally, the events of the last week have led to some soul searching in town. While Reeves said that he has faith in his community, he believes some self-examination is in order. “It’s often the toothache that tells you something is wrong with the tooth,” he said. “Despite the fact that we thought we had isolated ourselves from certain kinds of pain, upon examination, this tooth has something very rotten.”

If he’s looking for positive signs, a good place to start may be at the high school. Each grade has about 400 students, and Young said he was struck by how, during one of yesterday’s class-wide assemblies, a Muslim girl stood up to speak in front of all her peers. She told her classmates how, when she first heard about the marathon bombings, she hoped that the perpetrators would not be Muslim, because she feared resulting prejudice. “So she turned to the other 399 kids,” Young recounted, “and said please don’t judge me by the way that I dress or for my religion, only for the way that I am.”

“When she finished speaking, the other 399 kids just go into this sustained ovation of applause for her,” Young said. “To me, in that instant, you saw Cambridge Rindge and Latin.”

  • Paula Barbee

    I think Tamerlan influenced his younger brother beyond reason. or else i just cant conceive how someone raised in the bosom of the American Dream turned around and bit the very hand that fed it. sorry about the mixed metaphors…you know what i mean

  • Molly

    “How is it that someone can grow up in a place like this and end up in a place like that?”

    Although I agree that it is devastating to know that such a dangerous criminal grew up in your own backyard, I have to respectfully disagree with some of the sentiments in this article. The statement made that Cambridge is two-thirds white is inherently racist and by going on to discuss the minority student percentage just makes things worse. Overall, the tone of this paper seems to suggest that Cambridge is some sort of white, liberal Utopia that “accepts others.” To me, this belief seems like the perfect breeding ground for social isolation. The article goes on to discuss how Cambridge puts its money where its mouth is for education and the “needier among them.” I assume the needier among them refers to “poor” people who live in Cambridge? Aren’t those people residents of Cambridge, too? Again, this is an excellent way to make people feel like outsiders. I am not saying that it is the fault of individual people of Cambridge, but there is a social environment that exists in the city that is isolating and exclusive.

    I wonder what would have happened if this young man grew up in Dorchester, Roxbury or Mattapan. We probably wouldn’t be having this same reaction. Again, my heart goes out to all those affected by the tragedy and how difficult this all must be. This being said, I am not surprised that this could “happen in a place like this.” Cambridge produces a socially isolating environment which is the perfect breeding ground for those who did not fit in and need to rebel against society. So yes, Cambridge, it could happen in your town. It could happen anywhere.

    • Eli Saltzman

      Thank you this is very well said! Cambridge needs to get over itself and start feeling for the real victims of this tragedy; the children whose limbs were blown off and the many who lost their lives.

      • Alison Roberts

        Eli, forgot to mention that the older brother also murdered the stepson of my niece’s nursery school teacher. So don’t tell me that Cantabridgians don’t understand that innocent people died and we cannot feel compassion for everyone, yes everyone. That is what is so crazy. Hate is an easy emotion to hide behind and I wish I could run there, yes I do.

    • katherine

      I understand your point, but I disagree. Growing up in Cambridge, there is no isolation based on ethnicity, religion, or class. I have been a student of the Cambridge Public School system, and have never observed such. Especially Dzhokhar, who was close friends with people of a wide range of ethnicities, religions, and classes. I think your perspective of this article portraying specific groups of people as outsiders is distinctly your opinion and I suppose people do not understand unless they are from Cambridge. It seems as if some are outsiders by the way we talk about the various cultures and SES of people in the city, but those are just the facts, and it certaintly does not make Cambridge a city that acts as a breeding ground from those who don’t fit in and need to rebel against society. It can indeed happen anywhere, but of all places in the country, the accepting nature of Cambridge is the most shocking place to have this occur. Like I said, you really will never understand this unless you are from Cambridge. And for those of us from Cambridge, as mentioned over and over again by various people on a range of media sources, each and everyone of us pride ourselves on the inclusive nature of the city. People that come and teach in Cambridge from all different walks of life have expressed how unique this city and school system is. There is no place like it. You have to be from Cambridge to really understand.

      • Molly

        Unfortunately, you and Mr. Young (who is relied much too heavily upon in this article) are under this myth of Cambridge.
        And no, I’m not from Cambridge, I am from Somerville. You want to see “different walks of life” Come stroll around my neighborhood where we don’t feel the need to talk about how inclusive and special we are. Also, I suggest you glance at a US Census interactive map that shows how segregated Cambridge really is by SES and Race.

        Again, I am very sorry that this young man happened to be from Cambridge. As someone said, it is hard for ALL of us who live in the metro-Boston area. It was nice discussing this with you.

  • forrestmacgregor

    Not all minds work well. Take a weak adolescent mind, poison it with religion and social stress, add a mentally ill older brother, put them in a place where destructive raw materials are easy to find, and embed that place into one of the most violence-oriented societies on the planet and this is not all that surprising. Bro1 is dead. Bro2 is headed that way. May take some time, but this branch of the human tree is pruned, I suspect. The Feds will execute this man within 5 years. If not, his prison mates will and/or he will hope for an early death in the lonely and segregated hell of a SuperMax. Not a good outcome. A damned good lesson on why one should shun religion, though.

    • agingcynic

      Absent religion in general, this would not have happened? You may want to review that old “correlation vs. causality” term paper.

      • forrestmacgregor

        Those aren’t the largest words I know, thanks! The point of course, is that competing fantasies have been used as justification for an unending series of cultural conflicts over the centuries, many of them advocate destruction of ‘The Other’, and none of them have entry requirements. These boys, clearly not the brightest of bulbs, seem to have had tangential connections to some religious motivation. Not quite QED, but certainly a suggestive data point for my conclusion.

    • Eli Saltzman

      Not all minds work well is no excuse for the conscious decision to murder a crowd of innocent men, women, and children.

  • Eli Saltzman

    People need to stop feeling hurt that this monstrosity emerged from the bubble of idealistic liberalism that is Cambridge and actually spend some time mourning the hundreds whose life’s were destroyed by the thoughtless and inhuman acts committed by these two brothers.

  • disqus_i65adZtaWD

    If you are not here in Cambridge or Boston or Watertown, I would ask that you consider OUR feelings. The Tsarnaevs were my neighbors. There’s a special brand of grief that goes along with this knowledge and connection. I didn’t know them, but I can see their house from where I sit right now. It’s easy to sit far away and slap a one-word descriptor on a criminal, thus dehumanizing him/her. “Terrorist.” “Jihadist.” “Deranged.” “Other.” When you learn s/he was a member of your community? You can’t shake that human part. This community has every right to feel like this, like we’ve somehow let down one of our own. And people don’t just have one emotion at a time, so I don’t understand this “you should be having feelings about this instead of that” mentality. Everyone in the metro-Boston area is grieving, mourning, many suffering PTSD from the events of this week. I have several friends who spent a pretty damn terrifying night and day in Watertown. Several others who bore witness to the carnage at the Marathon. I’m a dancer, and a member of the dance community had her foot blown off. We’re a pretty interconnected city. If we weren’t directly harmed by the events of this week, we all know at least one person who was. Please check yourself before invalidating another’s emotional response to tragedy, now and in the future. Peace.

    • wickedangrybroguy

      I totally understand letting people have their own emotional response, to a degree. But I can see their house too (and see all their friends on twitter who are also local neighbors of you and me claiming this is a government conspiracy) and I don’t really feel as conflicted as you do. You know why? Because they wanted to kill you and me. That’s the part that bothers me, personally. The dehumanization of people who dehumanized themselves to the point where they had no problem maiming scores of people, less so. We didn’t let them down, they let us down.

  • Kim

    I am from Georgia so I’ll just throw in my perspective. Anyone moved from one country to another has an adjustment — exclude religion but it is a mightly powerful play on emotions at various ages. IF the news can be believed, there is a warrant for the mother’s arrest in Massachusetss — reason the father and mother left the country — RED FLAG. I know she speaks from an emotional edge — but her words spit venomous imaging of the US. The news also reported there had been some “girlfriend abuse” by the older brother which I speculate the wife was (is) a battered woman — if nothing but by words/ pressing she start dressing and acting like his countryman instead of an American — RED FLAG. Yes, the community can question itself — on how did it not impact in a postive way the lives of these two — but the root of each of us starts in our family/ values / beliefs and as long as those family members are connecting to us — our core is grounded by what they believe. Why didn’t they embrace America and love the American Dream? Such people living here that weren’t born into the American dream aren’t respecting the American Dream because those of us who have it AREN’T REQUIRING IT OF THEM. Simply put — if the parents don’t LOVE moving to the US and the principles of loving each and every one of us — no matter how educated — no matter how redneck — and if you “just don’t understand Americans” — then most likely you should NOT move to our country. Why the older brother didn’t STAY in his homeland with his parents and bring his wife /child and younger brother and make a life better for them all there is another important question? Instead somehow — someway the anger / need to be powerful and destroy that which is not of your nature is what they did. They destroyed (harmed) the best of American — the innocent children, the mothers/fathers/ those running for a cause, the young policeman trying to make a good life for himself, the exchange student trying to make a good life for herself, the other young lady who had a vibrant spirit — any one of those hurt or killed would have been the very spirit of goodness/ love/ peace to them had their own spirits not been turned to hate.