Barry’s Blog # 58: Tamerlan Tsarnaev: When the American Dream Becomes the American Nightmare

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.  – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Americans have always dreamed big dreams. Perhaps, having invented the phrase “American Dream,” we may well dream bigger dreams than other people. However, when our expectations are unfulfilled, we also fall much farther than others. Gaps between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – are also far higher here than anywhere else.

America was born in Puritanism, and that ideology remains profoundly influential. In its modern form it tells us (wrote Ben Franklin, not Jesus), “God helps those who help themselves.” However, there are darker implications to our American story – six out of seven of us still believe that people fail because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.

Historian Greil Marcus writes, “To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.”

But the promise of success (and consequent acceptance among the chosen) always appears just up ahead, and it contributes to a characteristically American ignorance about many of our social values, especially social mobility, the opportunity to get ahead. The likelihood of advancing in social class has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But fifty-six percent of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George W. Bush’s 2003 tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them. The myth of the self-made man is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism; in 2000, nineteen percent believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another nineteen percent thought they already were. Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will). These attitudes have softened since those polls were taken, but only a bit.

Our mythology, born in monotheistic dualism, claims competitive individualism as its highest value. For this reason, unlike older, indigenous perspectives, it offers only one alternative to the Hero, and that is the victim or loser. And when our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters this shadow within himself. This lifting of the veils often proves to be unbearable.

“America,” says mythologist Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” We go ballistic when we can only imagine moving forward and that movement is blocked. Then violence becomes the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, it is “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.”

When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when the gap between the dream and the reality gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, mass killer (almost all of whom have been white, middle class men with no criminal background) is an expression of social mobility gone bad.

This pathology may well be even stronger among one particular type of American. Sociologists often describe recent immigrants as “more American than Americans,” who are willing to work longer and harder because of their undiluted faith in the dream. But just below the optimism we may also find deep anger.

Enter Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber. Here I will be relying on Dave Zirin’s excellent article, “A Fighter by His Trade: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Sports and the American ...” (

The media have described Tsarnaev as a “one-time boxer.” Actually, he was a two-time New England Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion, and a flamboyant showman at that. He was, writes Zirin, “America as learned through a television screen,” with ambitions as big as his success. He wanted to represent the U.S. in the Olympics and then turn pro.

He was about to compete in the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. However, the esteemed boxing organization changed their rules for admittance. The Golden Gloves, at the height of Tsarnaev’s powers as a fighter, ceased its ninety-year-old practice of allowing legally documented immigrants to take part in their tournament. Thus, Tsarnaev (and three other New England champions—all immigrants) were not allowed to compete. Dejected and depressed, he quit the sport.

As dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives showed, his devotion to radical Islam “was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.”

“Adrift meant food stamps and unemployment, as he needed to stay home and watch their infant daughter. Adrift meant feeling a new sense of belonging in political and religious doctrine that spoke of war against United States.”

Adrift (I would add) meant loss of the dream, a descent into victimization and a desperate search for a way to transform his despair into a sense of active heroism – or a sense of meaningful sacrifice, which in this context is very similar.

Zirin concludes:

“For over a century, sports has been the entryway for many immigrants and people of color to feel a sense of belonging in the turbulent ethnic stew that is the United States. The first Public School Athletic Leagues and YMCAs in the nineteenth century were underwritten by industrialists as a means of ‘Americanizing’ the masses arriving in record numbers from Eastern Europe…sports would be the first step…toward leaving behind radical socialist European ideologies and buying in to the idea of the American Dream…the doctrine that anyone who works hard enough could climb the competitive ladder…

Similar hopes of finally having a seat at the American table have been projected onto athletes of color such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and, most recently, Jeremy Lin. Their acceptance—or the myth of their acceptance—was treasured by immigrants and people of color as a sign that this country wasn’t just for Caucasians of pure European stock. How horribly ironic that this athletic avenue of acculturation closed in the face of someone who would have been at home in that late nineteenth century wave for whom the PSAL was created: an immigrant from Eastern Europe.

…the means by which people have historically felt a sense of having a stake in this country have been inexorably altered in the post-9/11 world. This is now a nation defined and scarred by the cruel anti-immigrant policies of both Presidents Bush and Obama. It’s now a nation defined and scarred by pushing people away from that historic safe haven for immigrants otherwise known as competitive sports. It’s a nation that spawned the brothers Tsarnaev.”

It’s a nation in which failure feels like betrayal, where the lone hero becomes the lone victim, who becomes the lone gunman.

Ending this essay with that phrase, I do not mean to imply that I share the conventional assumption – think Lee Harvey Oswald – that the brothers acted solely on their own without being entrapped by the FBI. This is a subject I will explore in my next blog.


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