When Good People Do Bad Things

Friends describe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a good kid. So why is he a Boston bombing suspect?

A week and a day after brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev detonated a pair of bombs in downtown Boston, killing three and injuring scores more, police are slowly developing a picture of the path that led to the carnage: The death of 26-year-old Tamerlan’s best friend in a triple homicide, his gradual immersion in radical Islam, his six-month trip to the volatile Caucasus region of Central Asia, and his final months in the United States—punctuated by what witnesses have described as increasingly erratic behavior.

But if there is a single wild card in the deck it’s the character of 19-year-old Dzhokhar, known to his friends a “Jahar,” the wry, sweet-faced college sophomore and newly minted U.S. citizen who’s been described by just about anyone who ever knew him as the exact opposite of the kind of person who would do something like this. Since his arrest a #FreeJahar hashtag has appeared on Twitter, and at least one friend has gone so far as to pledge his testimony as a character witness.

A former teacher said: “There is nothing in his character, in his comportment, in his demeanor that would suggest anything remotely capable of any of these things he is now suspected of doing.”

Not exactly the public response you’d expect for the average terrorist.

The mystery of how such a seemingly well-adjusted teenager could take part in a plot to commit mass murder will haunt those who knew him and remind the rest of us of an unsatisfying but verifiable truth: Sometimes good people do bad things.

For centuries, people have grappled with this reality. And since the defeat of Nazi Germany (and the discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust), a whole generation of social-psychologists has worked to decipher what drives common people to commit uncommonly bad acts. What they’ve found is that under the right circumstances, and with just enough prodding, the average person has the capacity to do some pretty horrible things. And while there are certainly different degrees of “badness” (shoplifting is hardly on the same level as mass murder), there seems to be a common narrative at play in the transition from good to evil.

Consider psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect.” According to Zimbardo, the formula for seducing an otherwise good person into committing evil often begins with an authoritarian relationship framed in an ideology of justification. From there it could take little more than a “small first step toward a harmful act” (say, like searching for bomb recipes on the Internet) to begin the descent down the path of no return.

Dutch business ethicist Muel Kaptein has identified a handful of variables that lead otherwise moral people to commit crimes, including “escalating commitment”—in which the path to wrongdoing is traversed gradually, in incrementally larger steps—and obedience to authority.  The relationship between Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was said to be one of leader and follower. Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo has been described as being “under the spell” of the older John Allen Muhammad. Evidence suggests a similar dynamic informed the relationship between Jahar and his older brother. People who know the Tsarnaev family say that Tamerlan had a strong influence on his younger brother. (As an interesting aside, one of the books purported to be on Tamerlan  Tsarnaev’s Amazon wishlist was Dale Carnegie’s bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”)

The link is even stronger given that the bombers were brothers. Psychologist Elizabeth A. Stormshak has found a correlation between deviant behavior in siblings, with younger brothers typically modeling the behavior of older ones.

Of course none of this offers any sense of resolution about what happened in Boston on April 15th; nor does it offer many lessons for the future. In his transition to alleged terrorist, Jahar Tsarnaev disrupted our narrative of what a perpetrator is supposed to look like. Unlike James Holmes or Adam Lanza, there were no red flags. Instead, Jahar’s story reflects the absurdity of evil, its randomness and the ease with which seemingly well-adjusted people can get caught in its grips. In the wake of Newtown, America became obsessed with how we could stop such a tragedy from happening again. After Boston, we are left to struggle with the helplessness of knowing we can’t.