Asking why

No satisfying answers
to the biggest question

When an unexpected event changes life in dramatic and negative ways, human beings cast about for information that helps them make sense of what has gone wrong.

After the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday, many details were available relatively quickly. The public learned that pressure cookers could be turned into bombs using readily available materials and instructions from the Internet, that no terrorist organization had claimed responsibility for the attack, and that the presence of photographers and surveillance cameras would benefit the investigation. By the end of the week, Americans knew who was responsible.

When terrorists strike, though, the question people feel most urgently is also the one that has no satisfying answer: Why?

Why would two young men who appeared to have reaped many benefits from their admission into the United States do something like that?

Why didn’t anyone pick up on what they were planning, or if someone did, why was no one sufficiently concerned to make a phone call? Why were all their relatives and acquaintances so clueless or loyal? That’s a question asked about every young person who turns violent: the Columbine shooters, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Aurora theater gunman, the young man who shot Gabby Giffords, the Virginia Tech shooter, the gunman at the Wisconsin Sikh temple, the man who shot 10 girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, the men who killed a Cortez police officer and disappeared into the canyon country — the list is long, and it’s populated by young (and some not-so-young) men about whom someone surely worried but no one tried to stop.

Why does the United States seem to have an epidemic of young men lashing out in this way?

It’s tempting to believe that if we can just understand how a problem came about, we can prevent it from happening again. In many instances, that’s true. Terrorism isn’t one of those instances.

Even if the surviving suspect is able to speak and willing, or coerced, to explain his thought processes in great detail, Americans aren’t going to say, “Oh! Well, that makes sense.”

No, Americans will be left with the very same questions they started out with: “How could you do this? What were you thinking?”

What terrorists and murderers think is anyone’s guess; even profilers have not been very successful at anticipating what they might do before they do it.

It seems, though, that even though their lives are very similar to those lived by millions of their American peers, they reach different conclusions from the same set of facts.

To a U.S. citizen, for example, there is no logical link between the Boston Marathon and Russian oppression of Chechnya or even alleged American war crimes against civilians in Afghanistan. Military policy and marathon runners are not related, and blowing the legs off of elite athletes will not bring about a change at either the Pentagon or the Kremlin. Murdering people will not advance the cause the bombers may have associated with Islam. The war dead will still be dead. No matter how eloquently Dzhokhar Tsarnaev explains what he thought he was accomplishing with his exploding pressure cooker, Americans are likely to respond, “Huh?”

Terrorists will always be among us, simply because, in their minds, terrorism “works.” The simplest, most honest answer, “I hate you because I feel powerless against you, and killing makes me feel powerful,” still isn’t going to provide closure, because we still won’t understand.