My Twitter feed has been flooded with this theme: The Tsarnaev brothers seem more like the Columbine killers than al-Qaida.
Maybe. Either, neither or it could easily be a combination. It’s way too early to know. The first thing I learned covering Columbine all those years was that most of the theories that gain traction early will be wrong.
But we do have an interesting situation developing with a pair of brothers as suspects: potentially, the classic dyad scenario. Notorious dyad examples include Bonnie and Clyde, Leopold and Loeb and the D.C. snipers. The dyad tends to be a twisted, particular relationship that plays out very differently than the lone gunman or the terrorist team.
Since that idea is getting a lot of attention, let’s explore the “dyad” phenomenon and how dyads typically play out. Whether that pattern was relevant here will be determined later. We could be looking at a fusion situation, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev trained as a traditional terrorist, and followed the dyad model in the way he integrated Dzhokhar.
We don’t even know whether this was a true dyad in the sense of joint planning. For all we know, Dzhokhar (or Tamerlan) learned the contents of the duffel bag only 20 minutes before the attack. His older brother could have asked him to carry the bag for him and drop it over there. Dzhokhar could have suspected a little, a lot or anything in between. All we know is that they were both there at the scene — and then became fugitives together. What came before is all still conjecture.
The good news: There is a typical dyad pattern. That’s in contrast to lone killers, who run the psychological gamut. Every study has drawn the conclusion that there is no typical mass murderer. Mass killers are mostly not loners or outcasts, and the Columbine killers were neither.
Killer dyads are more consistent. And the popular conception of the dominant, charismatic leader roping a submissive follower into his diabolical scheme — surprisingly, that usually turns out to be true. The leader is commonly a sadistic, dehumanizing psychopath — not always, but far more often than is the case with lone gunmen/bombers, where that personality type is relatively rare. The follower is often depressive, submissive or otherwise dependent.
When there is a significant age difference — as with one killer just out of high school — we can’t be certain the older partner plays the lead role, but it usually works that way.
Dyads usually contain contrasting personalities. A psychopathic killer generally does not link up with another psychopath. Nor do depressives pair up. Thrill-seeking psychopaths have been known to pair up, but most are looking for the qualities they lack.
Here, Columbine is highly illuminating. It’s a lousy example for understanding most school shootings, because it’s so atypical: It wasn’t even intended primarily as a shooting — the main event was the failed bombs. But Columbine is a perfect illustration of the classic dyad: Eric Harris wanted a minion to march behind him; Dylan Klebold was looking for someone to lead a parade.
Psychopaths like Eric Harris crave excitement and have difficulty sustaining it. An ambitious killer may crave a pliable, excitable assistant. He is not in the market for argument, criticism or someone to share the glory. A No. 1 fan would be super.