Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Boxing, Bombs, and Brain Injury

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Two weeks after the tragic blasts in Boston that shook the world, we still know very little about the motivation behind the attacks. We have learned much about the two brothers believed to have planned and followed through on the bombing, but we know little more than their ethnicity (Chechnyan), the story of the older brother spiraling towards radical Islam, and background information on their life.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who appears to have been the mastermind behind the terrorist attack will never tell his side of the story. He was killed in the manhunt and subsequent shootout during the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs. Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the younger brother who is now in a prison hospital being treated for wounds from his own standoff with police may eventually give us insight as to what drove the two to commit such terrible acts, but for now we are left with speculation.

As soon as information started to come out about the two Tsarnaev brothers, something stuck out to me. Tamerlan, the more aggressive and radical of the brothers, was an amateur boxing who won the New England Golden Gloves competition twice. Clearly this may be indicative of a pre-existing violent streak, which domestic disputes between his wife and Tamerlan suggest.

Tamerlan’s boxing career may also suggest something else that could theoretically be a piece of the puzzle to explain his motives. Boxing is the sport most associated with brain injury, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a permanent neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated brain injuries. CTE is also associated with early onset dementia, emotional problems, erratic behavior, and extensive cognitive deficits.

I was not alone in noticing the connection. Time recently asked “whether Tsarnaev’s brain may have been similarly traumatized during the years he boxed, and if there had indeed been damage, did that spark his murderous behavior?”

It seems very likely that Tsarnaev may have suffered brain damage significant enough to have deeply affected his personality, but it also seems highly unlikely that it contributed to the terror attacks in Boston. CTE can lead to angry outbursts and violent behavior, but one fact destroys the notion that Tsarnaev was somehow less responsible the attacks due to any brain injury.

“The Boston bombing was a planned attack,” Dr. Robert Cantu from Boston University told Time. “There was no flipping out here, no impulsiveness. That’s not what you see with CTE in younger people.”

That line between premeditated attacks and impulsive violent behavior is the biggest indicator we have that Tsarnaev’s possible brain damage is irrelevant to the story behind the bombings, as well as providing a line for other similar criminal cases.

For example, take the sad story last year of Jovan Belcher’s murder of his girlfriend and subsequent suicide; Belcher’s crime was obviously impulsive and emotionally charged. When a neurodegenerative disorder was found post-mortum, it only confirmed what many predicted.

Discussing permanent brain damage and crime provides a tricky balance, similar to the cases where a mentally handicapped person commits a violent offense. It is hard to establish how responsible a person who is cognitively dysfunctional is for a crime when it happened without planning.

Terror attacks provide a different scenario however. When anyone takes the time to make bombs, coordinate with an accomplice, and attempt a large scale attack on the public, there is no question of responsibility, emotional involvement, or any other way we rationalize the hurt inflicted on innocents. There is no question that Tamerlan killed in cold blood, and Dzhokar is equally responsible, even if he wasn’t the mind that hatched the plan.

We show sympathy and a level of understanding to those who suffer severe brain damage, even those like Belcher who committed a terrible act. Belcher is obviously responsible for taking the life of a young woman with a bright future, but it is tempered by the knowledge he may not have been in control of himself in the moment of passion. However, in instances where someone planned a violent attack on the public over time, there is no room to blame the brain injury.

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