On April 15, 2013, during the Boston marathon, a horrific expression of Mars square Pluto exploded on the world stage. 26-year old Muslim Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, calmly placed two pressure cooker bombs in the midst of the crowd on Boylston Street as they watched the runners go by. Moments later the bombs exploded with a deafening blast, spraying shrapnel, nails and ball bearings in all directions, killing 3 people and ripping arms and legs off another 264. Within days Tamarlan and Dzhokhar were identified as suspects by the FBI. That evening, Tamarlan killed an MIT police officer in cold blood in order to obtain his firearm, carjacked an SUV with his brother, and initiated an exchange of gunfire with police as they were closing in.
An estimated 200-300 rounds of ammunition were fired at the two brothers, who responded by emptying their pistols and throwing bombs and grenades at the officers. Tamarlan was shot multiple times, suffered a possible blast injury from a suicide vest, and was finally run over by his brother who sped off in the stolen SUV. Dzhokhar dragged Tamerlan underneath his vehicle for some 20 feet before crashing through the police barricade to escape. Gruesome pictures surfaced online of Tamerlan’s bloody bullet-ridden body lying dead on a hospital table, his mouth and eyes open wide in a ghastly final scream.
It is hard to imagine a more violent end.
Deconstructing Mars square Pluto
These events, including and especially Tamerlan’s affinity for pressure cooker bombs, are consistent with a single aspect in his chart: Mars in Aquarius square Pluto in Scorpio within 8 minutes of exactitude. To understand Tamerlan fully, of course, it would be necessary to examine his birthchart as a whole. No single configuration is sufficient to account for who he is or what he has done. Also, we do not have his birth time, which further compromises any attempted analysis.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that Mars square Pluto, like any other aspect, can manifest in a variety of ways on a continuum of functionality; hence, subsequent comments are not meant to imply the aspect will manifest the same way for every person. Most certainly it will not. This article is meant to analyze solely how it manifested in Tamerlan’s life. Mars square Pluto is an essential ingredient of the terrorist act for which Tamerlan is now famous: the Boston marathon bombings.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev Horoscope: Kalmykia, Russia, Oct. 21, 1986, Time Unknown
In the simplest sense, Mars is about action. As the ruler of Aries, its function is to fulfill needs for survival, autonomy, and freedom. When functioning optimally, it confers the requisite strength and courage to assert decisively in one’s own self-interest. Pluto, on the other hand, signifies an entirely different principle. As ruler of Scorpio, its function is to transform, regenerate, and heal. By definition this implies something that needs to be transformed—an emotional wound or corrupt condition. If functioning properly, Pluto bestows the ability to root out, purge, and eliminate whatever is toxic to the system in order to facilitate a process of healing and renewal. Very often this entails a certain attraction to death in all its myriad forms.
When Mars and Pluto are in aspect, each will infuse the other with the nature of its essence. Mars will strengthen and embolden the plutonian imperative for transformation, and Pluto will deepen and intensify Mars’ penchant for decisive action. An additional factor is worth noting: Mars’ orientation in time and space. As the archetype of the warrior, Mars is focused primarily on the here and now, for its prime directive is survival. Threats must be fiercely confronted with a willingness to do whatever is necessary to assure continuity of existence. This is especially true if the threat is Plutonic, which makes it appear extreme or even evil. Such threats can only be vanquished with a ‘total war’ response that is immediate, absolute, and exceedingly powerful.
With Mars in Aquarius and Pluto in Scorpio, the angle that blends their respective energies is the opening square, which is a Cancerian aspect and connotes themes of family, home, and country.1 Opening squares require the two planets to contain and sublimate their motivating impulses into a joint product that in some way entails caring and protection, for that is the essence of Cancer. Squares, however, are notoriously difficult to integrate, and there’s no guarantee that an optimal expression of the two planets will result. Until and unless the aspect is integrated at an intrapsychic level, each planet regards the other as an impingement that must be contained, inhibited, and suppressed. For if allowed to function freely, behavior may result that brings about the very thing Cancer fears most: rejection, with all its accompanying anguish and pain.
Things are especially difficult when the operative planets rule signs that are inherently in conflict. In the case of Mars-Pluto, Aries and Scorpio are quincunx; thus, the two signs have absolutely nothing in common, being different by polarity, modality, element, and perspective. The same incompatibility, therefore, is true for their planetary rulers. Mars and Pluto are like fire and water, which as we all know produces steam. If the actual aspect between the planets is a square, the difficulty is compounded. For the inescapable tension between the two drives tends to bring out the more extreme, negative attributes of both. Mars becomes increasingly hot, impatient, and combative; Pluto gets icy cold, super intense, and ruthless. The one is foolishly rash; the other cruelly vindictive. The resultant hybrid is like mixing a pit bull with a black panther; hyper aggression with pure predator instinct operating under cover of darkness. It is, in short, a formula for a monster.
A useful way to grasp the flavor of an aspect is to convert one planet into an adjective and the other to a noun. With Mars adjectives and Pluto nouns, apt phrases are: impatient conversion; violent transformation; reckless power; aggressive cleansing; and immediate elimination. With Pluto adjectives and Mars’ nouns we get: pent up anger; covert action; passionate assertion; explosive violence; and extreme measures. If we use Mars’ verbs with Pluto nouns we have: Initiate death; activate power; commence purification; fight evil; and begin evacuation. Or in reverse: Fear freedom; hate liberty; eliminate competition; subvert independence; and destroy life.
While no single phrase captures the full complexity of the aspect, each contributes to a mosaic of meaning made up of separate but related components. Taken together, they provide a quick glimpse into a range of Mars-Pluto potentialities—albeit, in this case, toward the negative end of the continuum. If nothing else, Mars square Pluto confers courage to confront death; perhaps in extreme cases even an eagerness to die, as in Jihad or suicide bombers. The impulse for survival and the attraction to death are operating at cross purposes, which may paradoxically result in a headlong rush into danger. When cornered by the police, that is what Tamerlan did. Exiting his vehicle, he threw his remaining bombs at the officers, then dashed through the smoke firing his pistol and running straight at them until he was cut down in a hail of bullets.
Little is known about Tamerlan’s past. According to Dzhokhar’s later confession, Tamarlan was the mastermind of their plot to murder Americans. Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since he was 16, Tamerlan self-radicalized by watching terrorist videos and sermons by cleric Anwar al-Awlaki that encouraged young Muslims to kill enemies of Islam. A devout Muslim, former student at Bunker Hill Community College, and amateur boxer of some renown, Tamerlan claimed: “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”2 He also complained about America’s lack of values, and worried that “people can’t control themselves.”
These are interesting statements in light of Tamerlan’s own history of violence. In 2009, he was arrested for aggravated assault and battery against an American girlfriend who reported that Tamarlan tried to force her to convert to Islam and control what she wore and who she associated with. According to the arrest report, she called 9–1–1 “crying hysterically” to report that she had been “beat up by her boyfriend”.3 Tamerlan subsequently married a different American girlfriend, Katherine Russell, who did convert to Islam and began wearing a hijab when Tamerlan demanded that she do so. Friends claim Tamerlan would shout at Katherine and call her a “slut” for not covering up; also, he would fly into rages and throw furniture and other objects.4 If he did not actually assault his wife, one suspects it was only because he feared a second arrest.
The nature of Pluto is to transform what is wounded. Generally, this means anything that is associated with Pluto by hard aspect. Mars, in effect, is that which is wounded and that which needs to be healed. Pluto’s square to Mars suggests that Tamerlan’s capacity for freedom and survival felt jeopardized by some sort of external threat. Cognitively this can manifest as a pathogenic belief that acting in one’s own self-interest; that is, to be a separate, autonomous individual may actually be dangerous and could provoke lethal retaliation. Accordingly, Martian impulses are held strenuously in check, for their untimely expression might prove fatal. This internal state of alarm is not necessarily conscious, of course, for the underlying belief is held out of awareness precisely because it is painful and frightening. Periodic outbursts of violent behavior are entirely consistent with the aspect, since repression of Mars merely results in the accumulation of an explosive charge that will eventually seek release against a safe target—a boxing opponent in the ring, a wife in the privacy of his home, or innocent bystanders taken by surprise.
As to the origins of such behavior, it usually goes back to a childhood trauma that encapsulates the more problematic nature of the aspect. It is no doubt significant that Tamerlan’s family was from the war torn Republic of Chechnya, a hot bed of Islamic extremists fighting to gain their independence from Russia. Throughout the 20th century, Chechens periodically rebelled against the Soviets, with hostilities burning red hot during the 1990’s, which was Tamerlan’s childhood. Over the course of two bloody wars, nearly half of Chechnya’s population had been internally displaced and lived in refugee camps or overcrowded villages. The country was in perpetual economic crisis. Food shortages were epidemic. Occupied and under constant attack by Russian brigades, death was everywhere and life was cheap. Terrorism was an instinctive response; explosive violence wracked the land. Finally in 2002, Tamerlan’s father applied for asylum in the United States, citing fears of deadly persecution due to his ties to Chechnya.
It is not difficult to see how the tumult and turmoil of Tamerlan’s childhood environment was a perfect reflection of the aspect in question. Just as Mars square Pluto makes autonomy seem dangerous, so Chechnya’s attempt to gain freedom from Russia had lethal consequences. By the time Tamerlan arrived in the United States at 16, the trauma of his childhood was deeply rooted in his psyche, an indelible pattern of fear and anger indissolubly associated with an impinging foreign power. You can take the boy out of the terror; but you can’t take the terror out of the boy. Once an emotional pattern is established, it seeks an appropriate outlet.
A Pressure Cooker Set to Explode
Displaced to the United States and surrounded by infidels that continuously violated his Muslim values, Tamerlan’s new predicament was in some ways analogous to Russia’s occupation of his homeland. His Islamic way of life was under assault. The moral permissiveness, overt sexuality, and progressive secular values of American culture must have been a constant affront. Old resentments were surely stirred. Recall Tamerlan’s complaint that Americans have no values and can’t control themselves. Also, that he tried to control his girlfriend’s dress and choice of associates, convert her to Islam, and assaulted her when she would not comply. He shouted at his wife that she was a “slut” and threw objects in fits of rage.
All these attempts at control suggest Tamerlan was preoccupied with sexual mores. As Mars rules freedom and Pluto signifies sexuality, we might surmise that Tamerlan’s outrage at the sexual freedom of western culture was a projection of his own Mars-Pluto conflict. I am not suggesting this was his exclusive or even primary concern, but archetypally it falls within the parameters of Mars-Pluto. An even more egregious affront to his Muslim values was America’s invasion of Islamic countries, which must have resonated with his childhood memories of Chechnya being invaded by Russia. This, too, exemplifies a Mars-Pluto dynamic, for war is analogous to cultural rape.5 Dzhokhar acknowledged to FBI interrogators that the U.S. wars in Afghanistan (2001-present) and Iraq (2003-2011) motivated him and his brother to carry out the bombing.
Tamerlan was like a pressure cooker slowly building up steam during his decade long residency in the United States. At a conference a few years ago, I gave a lecture titled: “Psychodynamics of the Square: The Pressure Cooker Aspect,” which was accompanied by the description:
The square requires containment and control of conflicting impulses; otherwise, defenses are erected against unwanted drives, resulting in unconsciously motivated behavior. Such behavior naturally inclines toward negative extremes that compensate for whichever impulse is denied.
In this case, the unwanted drive would be Mars, for inner planets tend to be dominated by slower moving, outer planets. As a consequence, Mars energy would build up within the psyche and inflame the Plutonian impulse for transformation by rendering it more hostile—like an aggressive cancer destroying healthy cells. While Pluto naturally tends toward extremes, in this instance Mars would make it even more extreme. Mind you, this is the inner (intrapsychic) picture.
With regard to outward behavior, imagine an angry physician performing heart surgery hyped up on amphetamines. Not only is he apt to feel impatient and irritable while performing a complex surgical procedure that has life or death consequences, but he hates the patient he is operating on without knowing exactly why. This metaphor, of course, is simply meant to imply that Tamerlan’s Plutonic propensity for healing and transformation had hypertrophied into an out-of-control monster that sought to reform American culture by any means necessary, even killing innocent civilians. Moreover, I suspect Tamerlan never knew that the origins of his hatred for western values may have originated much earlier in the unresolved traumas of Chechnya atrocities. When a planet is repressed, it influences behavior from an unconscious level through the planet with which it is in conflict. In this case, Pluto is being revved up by Mars for reasons that are largely unconscious.
As an actual outer event, Pluto’s square to Mars is apt to manifest in a manner that synchronistically reflects the inner state. In illustration of this, consider that for three years Tamerlan was hounded and questioned by FBI agents (Pluto) who had been tipped off by Russian officials that Tamerlan had converted to radical Islam. Subsequently, his every movement was followed and actions monitored.6 He was pulled over by police at least nine times in four years.7 Note how this pattern duplicates exactly the intrapsychic conflict that is its genesis. The FBI (Pluto) is dominating and suppressing Tamerlan’s freedom (Mars). Moreover, it is an experiential pattern that is self-reinforcing. The more Tamerlan was suspected of being dangerous, the more dangerous he became. Knowing that his freedom was in jeopardy, Tamerlan’s resentment must have intensified over time, a simmering cauldron of anger and frustration.
Mars square Pluto is a pressure cooker aspect not only by virtue of its angle. The very nature of Mars and Pluto makes it doubly so, for Mars is the archetype of war, and Pluto is associated with concealment. Together, this is a formula for concealed aggression or covert war—in a word, terrorism. Tamerlan’s hatred had to be bottled up and hidden from view. He must have been wrapped tighter than an Egyptian mummy. As tension builds, however, the pent up energy is suddenly released in an explosive, out-of-control manner. The mummy awakens and goes on a killing rampage.
Tamerlan’s use of pressure cooker bombs is a perfect metaphor of his inner state. Gun powder and shrapnel are placed inside the container, and a blasting cap attached to the top. Long range remote controls were used by the brothers to trigger kitchen-type egg timers that detonated the bomb.8 The pressure cooker contains the energy of the explosion and allows it to build up before it releases; thus, low explosives can produce a relatively large explosion. The fragmentation of the pressure cooker creates additional lethal shrapnel.
Just as Tamerlan was himself a ticking time bomb, so he must have resonated with a device that mirrored his own Mars-Pluto psychodynamics. Mars is the weaponized nails and ball bearings; Pluto the gun powder; and the square is the pressure cooker that contains the explosion before it releases. For Tamerlan, the pressure cooker bomb was a form of self-expression, an instrument and outlet for his own pent up Mars-Pluto rage.
Summary and Conclusion
The opening square of Mars in Aquarius to Pluto in Scorpio is the quintessential aspect not only of the terrorist in a generic sense, but more specifically of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s internal state leading up to the Boston marathon bombings. Even the sign positions of the planets are apt, for Mars in Aquarius is consistent with fighting for a radical cause, while Pluto in Scorpio underscores the do-or-die, volcanic intensity of his commitment. The opening square connotes the contents of his repressed Mars, held in check by fears associated with impulses for freedom and an accompanying conviction that his life was in perpetual jeopardy. Just as Chechens were attacked and killed for trying to separate from mother Russia, so Tamerlan felt that he was forever in danger of losing his freedom, regardless of where he lived.
As a Cancerian aspect, the Mars-Pluto opening square also reminds us that Tamerlan’s root motivations went back to home and family. Persecuted and driven from their homeland by an invading superpower, his family carried their emotional scars to the United States, which ultimately became a proxy for Tamerlan’s vindictive rage against Russia. Unable to fight the original enemy, he chose to vent his anger upon the nearest substitute—his new homeland, the United States, which all too readily fit the pattern of an invading superpower encroaching upon an Islamic state.
Once a pattern of thinking and feeling is established, it will seek an outlet that roughly matches the archetypal template. Tamerlan was compelled to repeat his early experiences in Chechnya in order to gain mastery over what had traumatized him. In so doing, he duplicated the personal hell of his childhood by turning Boston into a flaming battle ground, the latest front in his personal vendetta against the forces of evil.
Psychologically speaking, repetition compulsion is an attempt to remember and to master what had heretofore been repressed. Yet, unless the repetition leads to conscious insight and understanding, the original trauma is simply repeated over and over. Often this entails an unconscious role reversal; the victim becomes the perpetrator. Rather than feeling powerless, one becomes all-powerful. It is likely that some version of this occurred with Tamerlan. He was compelled to repeat what he had no doubt witnessed in Chechnya, but in so doing unwittingly became the evil that he sought to vanquish.
The opening square must contain and resolve feelings generated by conflicting impulses, and then redirect them towards caring ends. Tamerlan’s initial intention was to protect his own family from the moral corruption and decadence of his host country. Once radicalized, however, this eventually extended to the families of Afghans and Iraqis and any other country where Muslim sensibilities had been violated by the great Satan (America). As with all terrorists, Tamerlan saw himself as an agent of global Islamic revolution toward a Universal Caliphate. The ultimate goal was to eliminate western secularism and make the world safe for domination under Islam and Sharia Law. Tamerlan’s fantasy was one giant family ruled by Islamic purists, the perfect expression (for him) of Mars in opening square to Pluto.
The Cancerian theme of the opening square was especially evident in Tamerlan’s original plan to detonate his bombs in Boston on July 4th, our nation’s birthday. Hundreds of thousands of patriots would have been packed together at the banks of the Charles River. The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular is known as the premier Independence Day celebration in the nation. How ironic that the planet of independence, Mars, would have been directed against an Independence Day celebration. As it was, Tamerlan’s plan was averted only because construction of the bombs were finished earlier than expected, so he changed his target to Patriot’s Day, the day of the Boston marathon.
If the opening square requires the operative planets to sublimate their impulses into a joint product that in some way entails caring and protection, what Tamerlan did was a perversion of true caring. Rather than utilize Mars-Pluto in the service of protecting loved ones in the homeland; he used it to murder mothers and children in a homeland he sought to destroy. His story tragically reveals what can happen when an aspect is not integrated in a functional way.
History is replete with examples of heroic, functional expressions of Mars square Pluto. General George Patton used it to flush the Nazis out of France and Italy in WWII; Mel Gibson used it in the making of his film Braveheart, which celebrated the Scottish warrior William Wallace whose cry of “Freedom!” rallied the Scots to chase England out of their homeland. And British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aptly named “The Iron lady” by a Soviet journalist, used her Mars-Pluto square to triple England’s nuclear forces, defeat communism in the Cold War, and drive invading Argentinian forces out of the British-controlled Falkland Islands.
Lots of other notable people have (or had) it, too—Dr. Phil, Suzanne Somers, Amelia Earhart, Nancy Grace, Thomas Jefferson, Lenny Bruce, Harvey Milk, Bruce Lee, John McEnroe—all of whom, when you look closely, have a streak of fierce intensity that carries them forward into various arenas to fight the good fight. These examples and countess others illustrate that Mars square Pluto is not inherently an evil aspect that compels human beings to commit acts of rape and murder, though certainly there are numberless examples of those who have done so. As with any hard aspect, it requires reflecting upon mixed feelings and holding them in awareness so that new, adaptive capacities can emerge. Such capacities can then be utilized for the greater good.
When painful, traumatic memories reside at the base of such an aspect, holding them in awareness so they can be metabolized, healed, and redirected toward constructive ends may be exceedingly difficult, like taming a wolf in the wilds. Regrettably, Tamerlan was unable to do it, becoming instead a lone-wolf terrorist who fought for the wrong cause with the wrong methods. In the end, the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a cautionary tale, a grim reminder that as Shakespeare wrote long ago, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
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1 One can differentiate an opening from a closing aspect by determining the faster moving planet. As the faster of the two, Mars will separate from a conjunction with Pluto and form a series of 30 degree angles over the period of time it takes to traverse the zodiac and reform the conjunction (the synodic cycle of Mars-Pluto). The first 90 degrees of this cycle is the first square. Just as the sign Cancer signifies the first 90 degrees of the Earth’s separation from the vernal equinox, so the first 90 degree angle of the synodic cycle between two planets has a Cancerian quality.
5 I am not suggesting that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were unjustified. That is a separate question. I’m merely saying that from Tamerlan’s perspective, invasion of an Islamic country by the U.S. not only was a repetition of what Russia did to Chechnya, but archetypally also had connotations of cultural rape.