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Nationalism, Madness, and Terrorism

If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the US, or in Chechnya's two wars in the last 20 years. Instead, the key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior lies in developments in England 500 years ago.

BOSTON – If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the United States, or in the two wars fought in Chechnya in the last 20 years. Instead, a key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior may perhaps be found in developments in England 500 years ago.

Several new phenomena appeared in sixteenth-century England that revolutionized human experience. English society was redefined as a “nation” – that is, a sovereign community of equal members. With that, the era of nationalism began, and social mobility became legitimate.

At the same time, a special variety of mental illness was first observed, which we would later call schizophrenia and depressive disorders – different from a multitude of mental illnesses already known. It called into being a new term, “madness,” the first medical specialization (eventually named “psychiatry”), and special legislation regarding the “mad.”

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