When I was just out of the University of Arizona law school back in the late ‘60s, and awaiting the bar exam results, I took a few days to drive north from Tucson to western Colorado. Interstate 10 to Phoenix in those days was still hit or miss between the previous four-lane US highway and the new divided freeway. I had driven roughly 40 miles in my Nader-disapproved Corvair when I encountered a police activity scene in a construction zone between Marana and Picacho Peak. The highway patrol had shut things down and we were forced to wait. After about half an hour we were released, but I could see sheriff’s and emergency vehicles several hundred yards out on the desert to the east. It clearly was not a highway accident or something involving the road project. I couldn’t easily figure it out.
As I continued north through Phoenix and then the Black Canyon Highway, the radio news reported that a highway patrolman had shot and killed a man who had threatened him and other officers with a gun. The strange part, the report said, was that the man’s gun hadn’t been fired because it was not loaded. This was when I first learned of the concept “suicide by cop.” It was not a well understood phenomenon at the time, but the evidence was pretty clear
Since then, of course, suicide by cop is a notion which has become well-known to both law enforcement and the media. It doesn’t happen often but in the forty-five years since that incident illuminated the idea in my brain , I’d bet such incidents occur several times a year throughout the nation. There are websites dealing with it, it has found its way into fiction and TV and is always treated as something bizarre. The police support groups have even offered advice to protect officers from charges that the deaths resulted from law enforcement overzealousness.
And, we are all familiar with the murder-suicides which are reported almost daily. Often these are domestic situations where a spouse murders the other spouse and then takes his or her own life. Frequently other family members are murdered in the process, children, siblings, in-laws and others.
And, just to make sure we are all on the same page here, “suicide by cop” is a suicide where the decedent is unable or unwilling to take his own life, but wants to die so badly, he will provoke a police officer into shooting him. To get a police officer to do that takes a great deal of effort and resourcefulness. Most are very reluctant to even draw their sidearm.
So, if you are suicide-bound, you want to be sure that the police will use enough firepower to kill yourself. Being wounded and living is not what you want. You must commit an act so heinous that you can be certain you will die.
With those concepts in mind, analyzing what the Tsarnaev brothers were doing may be more understandable. From the beginning their motive has been a mystery. Terrorists, as we generally understand them, make sure their violence is accompanied by a message in support of their cause. These brothers never issued such a message and even now the “experts” are simply speculating, based on their heritage and shaky connection to Islam. The older boy seems to have found Islam, though the level of extremism, if any, is unknown. The younger one had not. He was a more typical teen, preferring an ordinary social life over any sort of zealotry. As a result, the speculation about a religious motive is unsatisfactory and not very persuasive.
We do know that the older brother, Tamerlan, was disaffected. He was an isolated loner unhappy with his life in the U.S. He is quoted as saying he had no American friends. This is the opposite of what the younger brother Dzhokhar was saying and doing as a college student. So why do these two brothers manufacture home-made bombs, explode them in a crowd of innocents and two days later assassinate an unsuspecting police officer—while not offering any message about their purpose? Indeed, they didn’t have any viable escape plan except perhaps hoping they wouldn’t get identified. Once the videos and pictures were shown, they knew they would quickly be identified. Instead of staying to ground or trying to disappear, they choose to kill officer Collier, an act they know will inflame law enforcement. Then they carjack a Mercedes-Benz and release the driver unharmed. I think it can be posited that they wanted that victim to identify them as the bombing suspects.
I suggest that this adds up to planning a confrontation to the death. Tamerlan, at the very least, is a candidate for suicide by cop. He’s been a failure in the face of opportunity. He cannot see a positive outlook for his life. Indeed, what seems to have been a short exposure to Islam has not helped him get a better outlook, either. So, embittered by his failings, he decides to end his life and take a few Americans with him. As long as he isn’t caught, he can continue to murder innocents. But once they were IDed, they fell back on the suicide by cop plan. To guarantee that he will lose his life, he kills officer Collier, in the near-certain belief that other officers will take their revenge, satisfying his death wish.
As for Dzhokhar, I think he was simply in his older brother’s thrall. Clearly Tamerlan had little regard for him. My feeling is that Dzhokhar would do anything for his beloved older brother, though why he would go along with the bombings in the first place is unclear. Perhaps his own failings as a student would explain some of it. Did he see himself on the same downward trajectory as Tamerlan?
The main shortcoming of my analysis is the weaponry. If they possessed military grade weapons for the shootout, it would suggest that they had outside help and were part of a larger conspiracy and not a suicide plot. If their weapons were defensive without extensive firepower, then the probability of provocation, leading to suicide-murder by cop, can be seen as more likely than any other scenario. Indeed, this morning’s revelation that Dzhokhar’s neck wound was probably self-inflicted tends to support that conclusion, though there remains room for another explanation.
As far as I know, from public reports now available, the nature of the Tsarnaevs’ weapons has not been released. So I’ll change my mind if they were using military weapons. So long as no religious message has been sent, I think the public and the security agencies should recognize that this is probably not an Islamic conspiracy, but an elaborate suicide—still horrific—but not a religious or political attack on the U.S. Disaffected youth are capable of awful things without any political or religious motive. Think Columbine; Virginia Tech, Texas Tower and perhaps the DC Snipers.
Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 8:59 PM PT: The plot seems to be thickening a bit, mildly in favor of my hypothesis. The Christian Science Monitor has a story which says that the two bothers were armed with handguns (quantity and nature not mentioned) and an M-4 rifle. Although they are certainly deadly, they are not the level of military weapon you would expect from an extremist. But they fill the bill for a battle to the death—i.e., suicide by cop.
And for those commenters who think this is all speculation, you should look again. I cited nothing in support of my (tentative) conclusion that was not supported by credible source. I didn’t think I would need to since all of the facts we are pretty sure about are consistent with the theory.
Most importantly is the lack of any terroristic message, something we’ve known all along.
Moreover, we knew that MIT officer Collier was ambushed in his car.
Among other things, Time has a story about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s sojourn in Dagestan, where he seems to have spent most of his time helping his father remodel the family house. While it does not definitively demonstrate that he was not undergoing training, it certainly diminishes that theory.
We also knew that Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the first shooting location exposed himself to fire by walking straight at the police line, emptying his handgun. That’s the act of someone bent on suicide. That he got run over by Dzhokhar does not change that. That Tamerlan was not killed by gunfire is irrelevant to the analysis. (The officers didn't kill either brother. Why not? Those officers are trained marksmen. Answer: they were told to take them alive, hence the wounds. But the brothers would not have known that. They would have still tried to be shot down by exposing themselves to gunfire.)
And those who are pointing out that these killers still had remaining ordnance to fire so suicide is unlikely, are missing the point. Yes, it seems that they would have continued their murderous ways until stopped. But that only means that their murderous path was a pathway to their own deaths. They wanted to die in a blaze of what? – their perception of glory? Publicity? Notoriety? They needed no message for those things.