Tsarnaev was a champion boxer who qualified for the national Golden Gloves competition and had once had dreams of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. That abbreviated career has led Drs. Robert Cantu and Robert Stern to urge examiners to study his brain for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease found in boxers since the 1920s that has received renewed attention because it was found in the brains of former football players. Though both doctors doubt that CTE caused the behavior that led to the bombings, researchers shouldn’t overlook the chance to study Tsarnaev’s brain, they told the Boston Globe:
“Is it possible that some changes might have gone on in his overall functioning due to his boxing and potentially related brain disease? Yes,’’ said Stern, a BU professor of neurology and neurosurgery. “Anything is possible. But to then jump to the disease leading to well-planned behavior like this, I couldn’t go there.’’ […]
“We can’t think of their brains as being normal,’’ he said. “But there are too many people who do such bizarre and terrible acts that it’s unlikely it’s all due to one terrorist gene or disease.’’
Media accounts have chronicled rapid behavioral changes Tsarnaev experienced in his early 20s, and most have attributed those changes to his renewed commitment to Islam. Finding religion led Tsarnaev to give up boxing, alcohol, and smoking, according to the accounts, and he also took a six-month trip to his native Russia, posted radical videos posted on YouTube, and lost the man who was reportedly his best friend in a grisly triple murder in 2011. These are all plausible factors that might help explain his motives, and they’re all worthy of investigation.
But the reasoning behind mass killings like the Marathon bombing, are complex and often hard to understand, and the deaths of the killers themselves during or after the attacks can leave us largely without answers. Knowing that, it’s worth exploring every angle, including the possibility that brain injuries and CTE may have compounded problems Tsarnaev was already experiencing. CTE has, after all, been found in boxers as young as 17, and it has been linked to changing behaviors, depression, and dementia. And though it may seem like a diversion to investigate its role in Tsarnaev’s personality, CTE was an immediate consideration in recent tragic deaths like the murder-suicide committed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and the suicide of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau.
Making sure that the autopsy of the older Tsarnaev includes a check for CTE would serve two valuable functions. In death, this man who caused so much harm might be a source of valuable data that could help shape our consensus about CTE and help others avoid brain injury in the future. And looking at the state of his brain as well as his YouTube playlist would serve as a critically important reminder of something we’ve forgotten in recent years: that terrorism can be inspired by many ideologies and grievances, and can spring to life in many kinds of fevered minds.