Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 April 2013

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

“Why?” The unanswerable question
The culture of Hadji Murat
Alpha-male culture
The Tsernaev Brothers
Coda: alpha males’ psychodynamics (added Monday, April 22)
Addendum on Margaret Thatcher, an unlikely alpha male


Friday’s capture of the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber casts a terrible shadow over my new series on human morality. What caused the two Tsernaev brothers to commit mass mayhem on so many innocents at a sporting event? If some bizarre form of human morality drove them, it surely was one with which most of us Yanks are unfamiliar.

The crime’s most striking feature is its utter senselessness. The bombs killed a few. But mostly they just macerated so many young, vibrant runners’ limbs. With all those nails and ball bearings, they were designed to wreak maximum havoc on human flesh and bone.

If mayhem can be a crime of passion, surely this was one. Maybe the Tsernaev Brothers had lost their reasoning power entirely. But if they had any, their goal was plain: to maim and to kill. Apparently they wanted many live victims, who would remember.

But remember what? Will the survivors—including the many single and double amputees—now support the cause of Chechen independence?

Not likely. Far more likely, the crime will drive Americans away from the Chechen cause. They will now have more sympathy for the hundreds of Russian children lost to Chechen terrorism at Beslan, and the Russians (mostly freed by sleep gas) held in terror at the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow. They will push us Yanks toward supporting the Russians in crushing Chechnyá forever.

Surely the Tsernaev Brothers, normal students, could reason this far. Surely they could anticipate that this type of crime would only boost the rising tide of equally senseless Islamophobia in the United States. So what drove them?

“Why?” The unanswerable question

What follows is speculation. But it’s informed speculation that those interrogating Dzokhar Tsernaev ought to consider. For the little locality that the Russians found so difficult has a troublesome similarity to North Korea. Read on.

If you want to know Chechnyá, you must first turn to Russian literature. Specifically, you must read a short novel of one of the greatest writers of all time, Lev Tolstoi. First published just over a century ago, it describes the Russian Empire’s battles to tame the Caucasus region. The novel is named for its dark hero, Hadji Murat—a doomed Chechen freedom fighter.

The novel’s most important feature is its detailed portrayal of the unique culture in which Chechen freedom fighters live. If you ignore present-day anachronisms like now-outmoded firearms and horses used for transportation, the novel will strike you as written yesterday.

It opens with a traveler in the region trying to pull up a thorny turnip-weed beside the road. The weed resists. All the narrator manages to do is bloody his hands and destroy a rag that he used to protect them. The hardy, spiny weed, he says, is a metaphor for the Chechen people.

The eponymous hero, Hadji Murat, has his own hard code of morality. Wronged by a rival clan of his own people, he agrees to help the Russians. But then, inevitably, he turns against them and is hunted down. In his inimitable style, Tolstoi instills in the reader a grudging respect for Murat and his world, as incomprehensibly alien as they may seem. It is a strange, hard and uncompromising culture, but one not devoid of grace or attraction.

Hadji Murat is the prototypical alpha male. Leader of his clan, he is a law unto himself. He fights on, for unseen reasons and unknown gods, until the bitter end. He changes sides, fights and runs, always for some hidden purpose, known only to himself. His life is a combination of honor, machismo, and stern moral command, for which he ultimately dies ingloriously.

The culture of Hadji Murat

It takes an entire short novel, plus Tolstoi’s ineffable insight, to see Murat’s culture whole. It is that alien to us Yanks today.

Russians of Tolstoi’s time perhaps understood it better than we, for they were still subjects of the Tsar. But we modern Yanks are imbued with a culture of teamwork, cooperation, and discussion. We have a tough time even seeing Murat’s culture clearly, let alone understanding it.

Law does exist in that culture. There is a rude tribal moral code, and there is the Qur’an. But there are no judges or imams to apply them. Hadji Murat, a local tribal leader, is himself the law. He makes decisions on the spot, and his word is law, for his tribe, his family and ultimately his own fate.

Tosltoi brilliantly describes how Murat’s absolute alpha-male leadership slowly narrows his (and his people’s) options under the Russian Empire’s relentless pressure. There is little talk of fault. For however wily, “moral” or “immoral” Murat may be, he faces inconceivably superior force. In the end, his options dwindle to crossing a river, as the Russian Army approaches from his rear.

It’s odd that we Yanks have such trouble recognizing this type of culture. John Wayne in his movies espoused much the same philosophy. “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” He wasn’t talking about law. Nor was he recommending consulting elders, priests or even superior officers. You take a glance at your own internal moral compass, then you plunge ahead, into the mouth of Hell if necessary. What the Tsernaev Brothers now have proved is that the Hell you enter can suck in others, too.

Law and religion are somewhere in the background, but action is all. So it was with Hadji Murat, although the background law and religion are different from ours. So it was, I think, with the Tsernaev Brothers. The chief ingredient is alpha-male rule.

Alpha-Male culture

All this hit me full force while listening to the Brothers’ estranged uncle tell Djokhar to turn himself in. What brought me up short was not the advice. In substance, it was good and proper. What caught me was the tone of voice.

I have heard that tone of voice before. Despite the slight foreign accent, the tone and cadence were pure Archie Bunker. The uncle was a common man in complete charge of his family and, insofar as he was asked to comment, in charge of the world. He spoke with absolute authority and no little menace. He expected to be obeyed. And lo and behold, Djokhar eventually did turn himself in, though not until after the biggest manhunt in our nation’s history.

Listen carefully for that tone of voice, and you will hear it in other places. You will hear it in the voices of North Korean newscasters telling civilians (and recalcitrant foreigners) to prepare for war. If you listen to old tapes of Aldof Hitler, you will hear it, although a bit screechier. It’s not a tone of reason, teamwork or persuasion. It’s a tone of absolute command. It doesn’t say “think.” It says, “hear and obey.”

The Tsernaev Brothers

Focus on this alpha-male culture. If you do, you might begin to understand what may have happened to the Tsernaev Brothers.

They seem to have broken the mold of domestic terrorists. Both were apparently well assimilated immigrants. Neither was an isolated, asocial, wimpy geek ready to snap. Both were successful students, known and generally liked by their peers. Both were active in sports. Neither was anywhere near borderline autistic.

But there are hints in their personal histories. The killed older brother, Tamerlan, said he didn’t have a single American friend, after over a decade here.

Why is that? Could it be that he was raised to be an alpha male in a culture of social media, cooperation, friendship and teamwork? Could it be that what he most wanted in life was to find an admirable alpha-male adult in his new world to tell him what to do?

Instead, he found only the Internet and Wal Mart. Too many choices. His ailing father went back to Russia, which has occupied his homeland for well over a century, apparently to die. Why is that?

Both the sport Tamerlan chose and his name are indicative. He chose boxing, and he became a local champion. How else could a young, foreign kid seek to gain instant respect and obedience? How else could he become an alpha male among his peers?

And his name—Tamerlan—derives from one of the greatest fighters in human history. The great Chinese Emperor Zhu Di, who proclaimed the Cheng He voyages that discovered most of the world, died fighting Tamerlan’s namesake, the Great Emperor Tamerlane.

Tamerlan took an American girlfriend and married her. She had been a Christian, but she converted to Islam at his insistence. Then, under his influence, she put on a hijab. What better way to show submission to her husband’s rule, just as in the homeland, and just as every alpha male craves?

In such a culture, did the younger brother have any real chance to break away? Or was his obedience to his elder brother’s whim foreordained? (I’m not suggesting this as a legal excuse, just as a practical and emotional explanation.)

As the youngest and most assimilated member of the family, Djokhar likely had some reasons for continuing to live. But once his older brother had been killed, his estranged uncle was the local surviving alpha male in his life. Which was more important: his own will to live or that surviving alpha male’s clear command? His interrogators will probably want to find out. The answer may surprise them.


Culture trumps almost everything. It easily trumps law and religion. The only reason we can have a culture of the rule of law is that we and our cultural ancestors have been living with one for the eight centuries since Magna Carta.

That’s why we still have so many white Southerners—including senators, who ought to know better—resisting a half-black president with all the means at their disposal, 148 years after the Civil War’s end. Even in a society built on law and compromise, it will probably take another generation or two (or three) before all of us can really appreciate diverse people as just like us (apart from foreign cultures).

Islamophobia is wrong and dangerous because it mistakes religion for culture. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, among others, are majority Islamic. But none poses the slightest threat to world order or peace. The same is true for the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims living in Europe and the United States.

What poses the danger, in my view, is the alpha-male culture of some tiny portions of the Islamic world: the Taliban, the jihadis, and perhaps Chechnyá, too.

We—the entire human race—are fast at work building a modern, diverse and global society of teamwork, cooperation, reason, specialized expertise, free markets, trade, and common rules. Alpha-male rule is a throwback to our evolutionary past. Every advanced country has gotten rid of it with term limits, checks and balances, and some form of collective government. (Surprisingly for us Yanks, China is ahead in this regard, however “authoritarian” it may seem in another sense.)

But one thing is absolutely clear. We must abandon alpha-male rule, consciously and deliberately, if we are to progress further as a species. Law and collective rule are the models to follow, even when Congress is in gridlock. If nothing else, the New Boston Massacre proves that.

A vestige of alpha-male rule may have its place within the police and military. But there it subsists under a legal culture and subserves civilian control, complete with term limits and checks and balances.

By itself, alpha-male rule has produced a spectacle of horrors. Hitler and Stalin were not the end of it; they weren’t even the beginning. Today we face Kim Jong Un, Robert Mugabe, and the failing but still living specter of Fidel Castro. And you can be sure there will be others, for the alpha-male ape is part of our evolutionary heritage. He will be part of our culture until we extirpate him by conscious effort.

In order to become fully civilized, we must do just that. The maxim “two heads are better than one” is not just a proverb. It’s a recipe for peace and effective government, in families as well as nations. For the lesson of the New Boston Massacre is that the threat of alpha-male families extends far beyond the families themselves.

We can start by giving our own John Wayne culture the early retirement that it so richly deserves. Big fists, big guns and big bombs don’t make right, might or civilization. They just make violence, corpses and amputees.

Coda: alpha males’ psychodynamics (added Monday, April 22)

The more I think about it, the more the alpha-male explanation of Tamerlan Tsernaev’s behavior seems right. How else could an otherwise normal, healthy, socially active sportsman like him end up with no American friends after over ten years in America?

If you are raised to be an alpha male, and if your peers accept you as such, you have no friends. Why? Shakespeare said it best: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Friendship is a relationship among equals, not between master and underling.

If you are raised to be an alpha male and no one accepts you as such, what then? You are fundamentally dissatisfied with yourself and others around you. Under the well-known psychological phenomenon of “projection,” the fault becomes theirs, not yours. Your social-media watching, cooperating, team-working, fun-loving, gossiping peers become your nemeses and enemies, or human trash. They are then fit objects of slaughter and mayhem.

The violence they seem to merit is just part of the general violence, always just below the surface, that keeps alpha males in charge. Listen carefully to the Tsernaev Brothers’ uncle, and you can hear a hint and threat of that same violence clearly in his voice.

It is hard for us Yanks to get our minds around this phenomenon because we live in an entirely different culture. From our earliest days, we hear Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words ringing in our ears: “All men are created equal.” And despite all the moaning, groaning and resistance, we have a President half of whose genes come from the same race of people who once were slaves here. Egalitarianism is built into our education, our upbringing and national credo.

Now imagine a very different culture. There, fathers are absolute rules of their families, sometimes to the point of life and death. All men are not created equal there. There are leaders and followers, rulers and subjects. The only point of equality among them is loyalty, which flows mostly upward.

The cultural heroes are not Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr. They are Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Is it so hard to imagine that a clash with such a culture, inside a single individual, could produce extreme psychic distress and hence extreme behavior?

And let me emphasize once again that the religion, Islam, has little or nothing to do with this clash. Like the Bible, the Qur’an has odes to peace and lots of “smiting.” Both books, after all, were written in the first millennium. True scholars of Islam today emphasize the peace, just as do Christians, because that’s what our common global civilization respects and demands today.

Addendum on Margaret Thatcher, An Unlikely Alpha Male

While on the subject of alpha males and a culture of dominance, it would not be remiss to pen a few words about the passing of Margaret Thatcher, the first-ever female prime minister of Britain. She died about two weeks ago.

Her death evoked all the controversy, angst and dissension of her life and governance. There were encomiums from the usual suspects, British conservatives, The City (Britain’s analogue to Wall Street), and banking barons. But there were expressions of hatred from the coal miners and representatives of British labor, who despised her.

Thatcher was undoubtedly the most divisive British prime minister in my lifetime, and I’m 67. She remains divisive even in death. Why? She was an alpha male with a vagina.

Before I have to dodge brickbats, let me explain.

In both the style and substance of her governance, Thatcher embodied a culture of dominance. Like every alpha male’s, her regime began and ended with a single principle: “I’m the boss!”

Thatcher “persuaded” by humiliating her own cabinet members. (Eventually, she lost her grip on political power when her personal abrasiveness went over the top.) She didn’t just defeat the coal miners politically. She crushed them and their union. She offered little or no assistance, retraining or compensation in a vast reversal of fortune that, while perhaps necessary, was economically wrenching for large sectors of working Britain.

In so doing, she aped her role model and mentor, Ronald Reagan, whose domestic policy came straight from the attractive but dangerous alpha-male fantasies of Ayn Rand (like Thatcher, a female). Reagan’s first significant domestic act as president was to crush the air traffic controllers’ union, thereby establishing his dominance as the nation’s economic boss. His acts defeated the strike, but without much thought to professionalism, technical expertise, or the future of air travel.

For about a decade afterward, Reagan’s union busting made a real dent in the efficiency and safety of air travel. The controllers were (and still are) a group of consummate professionals, working under incredible pressure doing one of the most difficult and critical jobs in our modern economy. Yet Reagan treated them much the same as our arrogant industrial magnates had treated the striking Pullman porters earlier in the last century, albeit without violence.

With his lockout and ring-kissing tests for rehiring, Reagan decimated the controllers and crushed their morale, forcing many into other careers. It took—and still takes—years to train a good air traffic controller. So the corps that Reagan’s alpha-male exercise left behind was less competent and effective for years afterward.

The only thing that saved the nation was that air traffic was not yet as dense, intricate or as important to national commerce then as now. If present conditions had prevailed, Reagan’s crude “I’m the boss” drill would have produced economic, if not actual, disaster. The resulting slowdown would have made today’s Sequester-caused delays look like a walk in the park. Or planes would have crashed. Even as things were, there were enough delays to trouble frequent travelers.

Paradoxically, Thatcher copied Reagan in his disastrous economic policy, but not in his successful foreign policy. During the Falklands crisis, she acted the pure alpha male. She played on British pride and the past glories of empire, leaving the plight of the hapless Falklands residents (nearly all of British descent and English-speaking) to a rare afterthought.

Her (and Britain’s) forceful response was perhaps inevitable, given the brutal acts of the Argentinian junta. But Thatcher made things worse with her alpha-male chest-beating. An earlier but less macho show of force by the still-potent British Navy might have avoided many deaths on both sides.

In contrast, Reagan’s foreign policy relied much less on alpha-male chest beating and much more on cooperation. While he sought—ultimately successfully—to bankrupt the Soviets with an unwinnable arms race, at the same time he offered the olive branch of disarmament. He found a sympathetic soul in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and he pursued nuclear arms reduction with a level of passion and vigor not fully known until recent biographies exposed it.

History will cite Reagan’s healthy start at real nuclear disarmament as partially justifying the over-the-top adulation his memory enjoys today. But it will recognize his domestic economic policies as extremist folly. In their lack of balance, subtlety and economic understanding, those policies were analogous on the right to Communism on the left. They are the source of most of our economic discontent today, including the deregulation-caused Crash of 2008. Unfortunately, Thatcher aped these counterproductive policies of economic dominance, but not the fruitful policies of cooperation with enemies in disarmament.

If you want to know a truly admirable female British leader, you have to go a bit further back. Queen Elizabeth I was one of the greatest leaders of England of either gender. She was also one of the greatest leaders of all time.

She ruled not by aping alpha males, but by exploiting the evolutionary advantages of her gender: cooperation and a disposition toward nurturing and sustaining life. She took an island riven by both internecine and external warfare and imbued it with a cooperative, business-oriented culture. She quashed male rulers’ obsession with murdering each other for royal succession. Instead, she turned England’s attention toward exploration, trade, economic development and commerce. Three centuries later, the business-oriented culture she instilled in that small island has come to dominate the world.

Queen Elizabeth I was not alone. She had the benefit of a superb legal culture going back to Magna Carta four centuries earlier. And she made some mistakes. She tried to grant royal monopolies to provide tax-free rewards to her favorite supporters. But the British courts overturned them, and later Parliament adopted the Statute of Monopolies—the model for our antirust laws and perhaps the single most important new legal-economic rule in human history. Yet all in all, Elizabeth I quashed the bloody deviation begun by Henry VIII and put England back on the true path of peace, prosperity and economic development.

Dominance or cooperation? Alpha-male chest beating or fragile civilization? Those are the still-unanswered questions of human social evolution.

Together, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth I showed that female rulers, like males, can follow either path. But world history since Elizabeth I has been conclusive on which is right. England’s science- and business- oriented culture, which we Yanks have inherited, not only has enjoyed smashing success. It has become a global model.



  • At Friday, April 26, 2013 at 5:03:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    You hit the nail squarely on it head hear:

    "Culture trumps almost everything. It easily trumps law and religion. The only reason we can have a culture of the rule of law is that we and our cultural ancestors have been living with one for the eight centuries since Magna Carta."

    Nice blog, thanks for writing it. Rod H.


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