Back in 2001, Ernest Wolf wrote an interesting article about Group Helplessness and Narcissistic Rage. Written before the 9/11 attacks, Wolf drew upon the work of Heinz Kohut for insights into the minds of killers who identify with groups and causes. This is certainly worth thinking about in the case of the Boston bombings.
Talking about rageful behavior [Kohut] observed that underlying the rage one often finds an uncompromising insistence on the perfection of the idealized other. The infant experiences itself still in a state of limitlessness power and knowledge, a state that we as outsiders deprecatingly call the child’s grandiosity, its grandiose self. If for a variety of reasons this infantile grandiose state of narcissism is prevented from maturing into healthy self-esteem we meet with what looks like an adult but really is a very shakily put together oversensitive and shame-prone narcissist.
Wolf explains that
[t]he fanaticism of the need for revenge and the unending compulsion of having to square the account after an offense are therefore not the attributes of an aggressivity that is integrated with the mature purposes of the ego - on the contrary, such bedevilment indicates that the aggression was mobilized in the service of an archaic grandiose self and that it is deployed within the framework of an archaic perception of reality. The shame-prone individual who is ready to experience setbacks as narcissistic injuries and to respond to them with insatiable rage does not recognize his opponent as a center of independent initiative with whom he happens to be at cross-purposes. Aggression, when employed in the pursuit of maturely experienced causes, are not limitless. However vigorously this aggression is mobilized, its aim is limited and definite: the defeat of the enemy who blocks the way to a cherished goal. As soon as the aim is reached, the rage is gone.
The narcissistically injured on the other hand, cannot rest until he has blotted out a vaguely experienced offender who dared to oppose him, to disagree with him, or to outshine him. ..It can never find rest because it can never wipe out the evidence that has contradicted its conviction it is unique and perfect. This archaic rage goes on and on and on. Furthermore, the enemy who calls forth the archaic rage of the narcissistically vulnerable is seen by him not as an autonomous source of impulsions, but as a flaw in a narcissistically perceived reality. The enemy is experienced as a recalcitrant part of an expanded self over which the narcissistically vulnerable person had expected to exercise full control. The mere fact, in other words, that the other person is independent or different is experienced as offensive by those with intense narcissistic needs. Thus, not being in full control over self and over a narcissistically experienced world gives the afflicted individual an experience of utter powerlessness. Such powerlessness and the sense of helplessness via-a-vis the world are unbearably traumatic experiences that must be ended by any means whatsoever. The offending other must be wiped out.
And on narcissistic rage and group affiliation:
The political arena allows many individuals to act out narcissistic rage as members of a group. We can understand this better when we remember that individuals who experience themselves as powerless often identify with groups by joining them. Groups that appear to have some power become seductively attractive to the narcissistic individual who is trying to escape the feeling of powerlessness. They experience the group power as their own power and any threat to the group power is experienced as an unbearable threat to their own self which then evokes unlimited rage in defense of self. Common are the hatreds that groups carry for other groups whom, rightly or wrongly, they perceive as threats to their very existence. They kill and destroy without mercy while at the same time enjoying a feeling of righteous triumph over a threatening enemy.
Some speculation on the bombers follows, but remember, this is just speculation. There is much we don't know and much we will never know.
It has been widely reported that the elder Tsarnaev brother had been arrested for domestic violence, which later resulted in the rejection of his application for citizenship. One of my first thoughts upon hearing about this arrest was that domestic violence is often linked with narcissistic rage. Not always, but often. And the rejection of his citizenship application could have been a major narcissistic blow for a shame-prone individuals. Other areas of failure have also been reported. For example, there was his quest for success as a fighter and his complaint that he didn't have a single American friend, though he did marry an American who subsequently converted to Islam.
Applying Wolf's formulation, these disappointments might have triggered revenge fantasies directed toward an America that rejected him and an identification with a violent ideological group with a history of anti-American violence.
To be clear I'm not excusing the elder brother's actions, nor am I blaming others. Rather, I'm speculating that he may have been a narcissistically fragile person. Most people who experience similar difficulties find non-violent ways to deal with their personal setbacks. The point is that rather than deal with these setbacks in a practical, constructive manner in furtherance of future success, narcissistically vulnerable persons instead focus their energies on vengeance and recovery from the shame of powerless imperfection.
I also wonder about the younger brother who was, according to the accounts of his friends, easygoing, non-religious and socially well-adjusted. Many have remarked on the influence of an idealized older brother, but I'm not sure that's the entire story. There have also been reports that he was having a terrible time with academic work during his freshman year of college, failing or barely passing most of his courses. Did his failures precede getting caught up in violent plans with his brother, or is it purely coincidental that he was failing as the plans were being hatched? Or was he failing because he became caught up in an idealized older brother's violent vision?