Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 2013. Photo: FBI


A weedy teenager, perhaps 14 years old, sidles up to a new police officer on the outskirts of Sydney. Suddenly the kid is waving a pistol at him. The policeman draws to fire but in the split second the kid squawks, “It’s only a replica! It’s only a replica!” True story: a practical joke gone wrong; a boy who had not the slightest capacity to visualise anyone bleeding out on the pavement. This is the impulsive teen at his best, or worst. The policeman did not shoot, but he resigned from the force within weeks.

The case of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose trial opened earlier this month, is completely different. He knew with premeditation that his actions would injure and kill, but he went ahead and placed the bomb at the crowded finish line anyway. To kill was the very purpose of his actions. Judy Clarke, the lead defence lawyer, may argue that an immature teenage brain contributed to poor decision making. Such a misplaced defence would be confused at best, and send the wrong message to both teens and courts.

Not “the teenage brain”

It is a serious mistake to confuse impulsivity and a failure to anticipate consequences, with the intention to harm others. The first is caused by an absence of sufficient myelination to assure prefrontal processing of emotionally conditioned responses. Tsarnaev made it quite clear in the note left at the scene of his eventual arrest that his actions were deliberate and intended as “retribution” to the West for what he regarded as attacks on innocent Islamic civilians.

Here we have a lack of connection, not between parts of the brain, but between Tsarnaev himself and the truth about our duties to fellow human beings. Any 10-year-old can hurt another child on impulse but every 10-year-old can tell you that murdering the innocent is wrong. One does not have to be an adult, nor even a teenager, to know this.

The press around this issue highlights three gross misconceptions about the teenage brain.

First, there are simplistic generalizations: teenage brain connections are poorly developed, therefore every teenager acts without thought of consequences, therefore no teenager is responsible for his or her actions. If that were the case, the clarity and constancy of Malala Yousafzai would be inconceivable.

Second, there is the materialist fallacy: that behaviour is necessarily determined by our brain chemicals and circuitry. This ranges from brazen reductive notions to the double think of compatibilism, which tries to marry determinism with free will.

Third, materialism leads to a serious category error: biology and moral behaviour are of totally different orders. Neurobiology is a part-correlate underpinning mental activity, but moral behaviour refers to the intentional, completed actions of the person. How can one meaningfully associate an impulsive burst from the amygdala with a refined and creative plan to place improvised bombs where their damage will be maximised.

It is inappropriate to blame immoral behaviour on developmental processes. Every teacher can affirm that a normal primary school child knows that hurting innocent victims is wrong.

Is Tsarnaev a psychopath?

But perhaps Tsarnaev is a psychopath with diminished responsibility for his actions. What does the abundant literature on the brains of psychopaths reveal?

Without question defective neurobiology is evident in the brains of psychopaths. What is not clear is the extent to which these structures are genetic in origin, or a result of poor moral guidance, since our experiences change the very structure of our brains. According to a New Zealand specialist in this area, Grant Gillett, the brains of psychopaths manifest defective aversive conditioning (their learned responses to fear fall outside the norm), and pathologically diminished empathy. Yet Gillett also points out that these defects can coexist with unimpaired executive function and emotional intelligence. And, significantly, he notes that subsequent “learned patterns of moral behaviour”, at least at times, can compensate for these psychopathic neural deficiencies.

Despite his clarity of executive function and failure to feel compassion for his victims, it would seem Tsarnaev’s profile is not psychopathic. There appears little evidence of mental illness as we would normally understand it. He was chillingly zealous about his mission, but was this delusional? Probably not.

A deficit in moral formation

And yet Tsarnaev’s grasp of reality, while possibly not delusional in the clinical sense, failed him badly. Why? He was well aware of the 8-year-old child standing near his pressure-cooker bomb. He exhibited a gross insensitivity to the rights of others and for this reason his actions were immoral.

However, moral behaviour requires moral learning – the forming of convictions of conscience upon which one makes decisions about behaviour. Conscience should be based on convictions about truths that transcend us: truths such as “do no harm” and “treat others as you would be treated”.

Tsarnaev lacked these objective convictions; his convictions were based not on real responsibilities in the world but on ideological fixations. His very grasp of reality was compromised. But it is absurd to suggest this was the result of teenage developmental deficiencies. The tragic deficiency in his moral learning must have other causes. Brain development is a consequence of one’s personal history of environment, choices and experience. Hence, for a late teen, deficits in his conditioned responses will be as much a consequence of his prior choices as they are of age and environment.

For the missing moral script, his dysfunctional home life – like that of Australian Isis recruit Jake Bilardi – has to bear some blame. What can we learn from Tsarnaev’s background?

A radicalised family

It would be unusual if his past had not marked him. He was born to a Chechen family that had been exiled to Kyrgyzstan. He relocated to the USA at nine years of age via a year in Dagestan. At this stage the family was divided for some time. His mother and his older brother significantly changed during his teen years; we know that his mother sought to indoctrinate the older brother to radical Islam so it is likely she would have worked on Dzhokhar also. It is remarkable that Judge O’Toole ruled at the start of the trial that this family background was not relevant, when it is evident that such family influences would have to have left scars on any normal person.

But there is background that is possibly even more insidious. Tsarnaev was a regular marijuana user and supplier. His friends describe him as a pothead. Did he turn to drugs because of negative feelings about his life? Or because he was highly impressionable? This could account for for his lack of motivation in his studies, and be a probable cause of what seems by all accounts to be an erratic turn in his behaviour.

There are lessons to be drawn from the ruin of this young life.

Parents and moral education. In the Odyssey, when he wanted his mother’s permission to go to search of his lost father, Telemachus proclaimed: “Mother I know the difference between right and wrong, I am no longer a child.” To Homer, this knowledge marked the end of childhood. This is a core task of parenting. It is the essence of moral education. It was lacking to Tsarnaev. Tragedy has ensued.

The real meaning of justice. Aristotle wrote: “Good habits formed in childhood make all the difference”. Of the four cardinal virtues, it is the virtue of justice that disposes us to treat others with respect and care. If Tsarnaev had been raised to respect others what a different scenario we would be facing.

Desensitisation to violence. Tsarnaev demonstrates a desensitisation to violence. Why? Is it because his family was dragged into the whole Chechen tragedy? Or because of the teachings of radical Islam? Or ease of access to weapons? And was it, I wonder, helped along by the computer games that sit on the hard drive of almost every teen? Wayne Warburton of Macquarie University insists that every independent study is showing that violent screen games have three effects: short term aggression, longer term desensitisation to violence, and a certain paranoia where the person perceives threats from situations or people where there are no objective threats. Does this sound relevant?

Drugs. The elephant in the room is marijuana.

The futility of revenge. Also, let us rethink the philosophy of retribution that motivated Tsarnaev but is a motivation behind some calls for his execution. On 20 March, Pope Francis spoke of the “inadmissibility” of the death penalty “no matter how serious the crime committed”, arguing among other reasons that execution fosters a spirit of vengeance, and itself offends against the inviolability of life. Tsarnaev sought to kill to gain what he wanted; as a society we must be better than this.  Aquinas said that all punishment must be medicinal, so let us punish with the desire to rehabilitate. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates insists that the one who does injustice is to be pitied. Let us pity him and punish him but not punish for the sake of vengeance, for that itself would not be “a just objective”.

Dr Andy Mullins, author of Parenting for Character and an occasional contributor to Mercatornet, is past headmaster of two Sydney schools, Redfield and Wollemi Colleges. In his doctoral thesis he investigated the neural substrates of virtue. He is currently working in Melbourne. He holds an adjunct professorial position at University of Notre Dame Australia. 

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...