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The Jarring 7-Eleven Detail in the Boston Manhunt

We didn't expect the alleged bombers to commit such an ordinary American crime

Getty/Joe Raedle

UPDATE: According to WBUR, Massachusetts State Police say the bombing suspects were not the ones who robbed the 7-Eleven.

This morning’s account of the still ongoing wild Boston manhunt for the two brothers suspected in the marathon bombing was stunning for many reasons: the quick torrent of information, the speed with which the sleepy suburbs of Boston became a war zone, the action-movie-ness of it all. But perhaps the most bizarre bit of all is that it all began at a Cambridge 7-Eleven, which the brothers held up (without masks), starting off a crime spree that featured the shooting of a campus police officer, a carjacking, and a car chase.

We don’t know anything definitive about the Tsarnaev brothers’ motivations or whether they had ties to any organized terrorist groups. But as a terrorism expert said this morning on CNN, “You don't rob 7-Elevens if you have a master plan.”

You might rob 7-Elevens if you watch a lot of local news, though. There is something particularly American about sticking up a convenience store. A full six percent of all robberies in the United States target convenience store, according to a 2007 Department of Justice report on the crimes.  Sometimes they invite punch lines: Just this week, in Whittier, Calif., three men held up a convenience store and left only with chips. Sometimes, like this one, they end in cinematic car chases and shootouts, with can’t-make-‘em-up details, and these are the ones that are the stuff of our popular imagination. In Bel Air, Maryland, a 7-Eleven robber’s chase ended with him naked on top of his car, plunged into a river. In Chicago, in December, a chase ended with two 7-Eleven robbers crashing into a tree. In St. Louis, in 2011, a particularly enterprising 7-11 robber managed to steal a police car while handcuffed.

A convenience store robbery is a petty crime (even if often a violent one). It’s Criminality 101, easy to pull off, or at least attempt. It can even, as in the instances above, be a bit of a picaresque crime. It’s a crime we understand, one that we think of as associated with people so down-on-their-luck as to be desperate, not people who have pure evil in their hearts. And that’s why it’s so jarring to think of these young men who carefully plotted to murder so many innocents as being convenience store robbers—just as it’s jarring to realize that whatever their ideological allegiances might be, they have lived in the United States for at least ten years, attended schools here, won boxing tournaments. We thought we were reading a John LeCarre book; we are surprised by the Elmore Leonard details.