On the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, President Obama stood in the White House briefing room and said, "We will find out who did this; we'll find out why they did this."
What motivated the murderous acts allegedly committed by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarvaev is the question on everyone's mind. We would be surprised if it were not.
But will people remain interested in the motive if they don't like what they hear?
Judging by the recent past, the answer might well be no. After 9/11, people wondered why anyone would kill indiscriminately by flying airplanes into buildings. The Bush administration and others leapt to an unlikely conclusion: the hijackers "hated our freedom." That seemed to satisfy most people. But it made little sense, and based on previous incidents, we already had ample reason to believe the answer lay elsewhere.
Earlier perpetrators of violence from the Middle East had made clear that what fueled their hatred of America was U.S. foreign policy in the region and the larger Muslim world. Osama bin Laden's own fatwa against the United States named three offenses: support for Israel's occupation of Palestine, the presence of American military forces near Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia, and the devastation of Iraq through 10 years of bombing and economic sanctions.
But most American officials did not want to hear -- and did not want the American people to hear -- that Muslim violence was in retaliation for U.S. foreign policy. When Ron Paul, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, criticized U.S. interventionist foreign policy during a primary debate, he was admonished by another candidate, Rudy Giuliani, among others, who claimed he had never heard such an outrageous thing. Giuliani was either lying or unaware that the official 9/11 commission and the Pentagon had previously acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy creates resentment among Muslims.
What about the Tsarnaevs? We await the facts, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told authorities his acts were motivated by "religious fervor." But it's a good bet this resentment was part of their motivation. The Tsarnaev family is Chechen, but Chechnya's beef is with Russia, not the United States, so that seems an unlikely source of a desire to kill and injure runners and spectators in Boston.
[UPDATE: Dzhokhar has reportedly told authorities the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figured in his and his brother's radicalization.]
It is more likely the young men were angered by U.S. drone warfare that has killed thousands of Muslims in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; brutal occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; backing for dictators and corrupt monarchs throughout the Muslim world; and unwavering material and moral support for Israel's oppression and humiliation of the Palestinians, with no end in sight. The Washington Post reports that a neighbor of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older, deceased brother, told him, "In Afghanistan, most casualties are innocent bystanders killed by American soldiers."
If revenge for U.S. foreign policy was the motive, what will happen next? Will such evidence prompt a national reconsideration of America's decades-old imperial foreign policy? Or will it be quickly dismissed, while the bombings are exploited in an effort to double down on that foreign policy. U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican, has already begun that effort. (Interestingly, Alberto Gonzalez, who was attorney general under President George W. Bush, acknowledged on CNN over the weekend that U.S. foreign policy is indeed resented by Muslims abroad and prompts a desire for revenge.)
There is much we still don't know about the Tsarnaev brothers and why they chose their deadly path. (What, if anything, did it have to do with Chechen organized crime?) Maybe it will turn out that they simply developed a hatred for what they saw as American licentiousness and felt they needed to strike out at it. (That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev partied at his college after the bombings, casts doubt on that prospect.)
It seems far more likely that the murder-by-drone of Muslim children, the no-knock night raids of Afghan homes, the daily humiliation of and violence against Palestinians, and the support for violent and corrupt rulers are what made these men want to exact vengeance against Americans.
Of course, none of this would justify killing innocents. But if we wish to prevent such wanton crimes in the future, we'd better understand what motivates the criminals who commit them.