Monsters Among Us

Maybe it’s just me, but I found the kid who was drenched in blood, with a red laser dot pointed directly at his forehead, far more sympathetic than the cute, cleaned-up one on the cover of Rolling Stone.

No one likes a preening, narcissistic prima donna with perfect skin.  But someone who spent an entire day rotting in a pool of his own fluids, unable to tend to several dozen open wounds, looking positively defeated when finally taken into custody?  The poor dear.

Rolling Stone ruffled all sorts of feathers with the release of its current issue, whose cover is occupied by the pretty boy face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  Critics howled that the image romanticizes Tsarnaev, making him out as some sort of “rock star.”

In response, a Massachusetts State Police sergeant leaked heretofore classified photographs depicting the capture of Tsarnaev at the end of a daylong manhunt, to remind everyone of the barbarian he really is.

Reading “Jahar’s World,” the article about Tsarnaev in Rolling Stone—which I strongly recommend to everyone—I sensed the light bulb above my head illuminate.  For the first time since the April 15 attack, I felt like I really got it.

But “it,” I do not mean that I understood Tsarnaev himself, and the reasons he might have had to join his brother, Tamerlan, in executing a savage and unforgivable assault on our free society.  Indeed, such insights are beyond the faculties of anyone outside Tsarnaev’s own head, and perhaps Tsarnaev himself.

Rather, I now better comprehend the particular context from which Tsarnaev emerged—the one that led Rolling Stone editors to depict him as they did.

Janet Reitman, the author of the piece, quotes Peter Payack, Tsarnaev’s high school wrestling coach, who says of him, “I knew this kid, and he was a good kid.  And, apparently, he’s also a monster.”

That’s it.  That’s the key to the whole business:  The terrible, frightening prospect that the bad guy was also a good guy.

This is entirely distinct from the profile of the typical teenaged mass murderer—the “loner” who “kept to himself” and “didn’t seem to have any friends” and one day brought his machine gun to school and massacred a few dozen classmates.

As Reitman’s article makes clear, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn’t like that at all.  He wasn’t a loner, he didn’t keep to himself, and he had plenty of friends, several of whom Reitman interviewed for the piece.  They seem like friendly, normal folk, and so does he.  No one suspected he was capable of committing an act of terrorism because he never gave anyone a reason to be suspicious.

Indeed, Dzhokhar here is seen not merely as a nice guy, but also as uncommonly generous and a positive influence on his community.

He would often go out of his way to do favors for friends.  He seemed to be perennially carefree and at ease—aided, no doubt, by his apparently bottomless supply of marijuana.

He cared passionately about his Muslim faith, but unlike his elder brother, showed no desire to enforce its values upon others.  Indeed, he talked about religion so infrequently that many of his friends—Christians and Jews among them—did not know he was a Muslim at all.

Details like these, taken together, lead one to an inevitable and frightening conclusion:  With just a bit of cosmic shuffling—slight alterations of time and space—Dzhokhar could have been a friend of yours or of mine, and neither of us would necessarily have felt a fool for forging such an acquaintance.

He could have been you or me.

To restate the point by Payack, the wrestling coach:  Dzhokhar was not a super villain, devilishly biding his time until the perfect opportunity to unleash holy hell finally presented itself.  Rather, he was a decent kid who committed an evil act, for which he cannot and should not be forgiven.

The question then becomes:  What do we do with this information?  Does any of it really matter?

In legal terms, it matters not one whit.  A crime is a crime, and any good that Dzhokhar might have done prior to April 15 is irrelevant background noise in a court of law.

Probably the only lasting use of the details in “Jahar’s World” will be sociological, forcing us to pause about what we think we know about human nature and the people with whom we surround ourselves every day.

The problem, as this whole sordid episode suggests, is that the conclusions to which we might ultimately be led may well be too horrible to contemplate.

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