08 August 2013

Our Cover Story

Back in April, when the FBI released surveillance-camera photographs of its main suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, a number of people recognized Dzokhar (Jahar) Tsarnayev: his high-school wrestling coach and teammates, other classmates from Cambridge and UMass Dartmouth, and so on.

Some students in Jahar’s dorm even joked about the resemblance between their friend and one of the bombers. But no one called the police because no one believed Jahar would commit mass murder.

The Tsarnayev brothers were caught the next day after they had apparently committed one more murder and other violent acts. Someday we in greater Boston might look back on that day and acknowledge how much went wrong: the shootout with lots of stray bullets against two guys with only one gun, the police officer nearly killed by fellow officers’ bullets, the search cordon that missed Jahar Tsarnayev’s hiding-place even as business shut down in several surrounding towns (including my own). Right now we’re still too pleased that that Friday ended as well as one would want.

But we’re still left with the paradox of the terrorist whom people recognized but no one could believe. Rolling Stone magazine explored that reality in its recent cover story about Jahar Tsarnayev, with the cover line “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

In some countries, identifying a suspect as “The Bomber” and “a Monster” before he’s tried and convicted would be seen as prejudicial. But here lots of folks reacted to the magazine cover as an outrage, suggesting it “glamorized” Tsarnayev because Rolling Stone’s cover usually features rock stars. Of course, it rarely calls those stars monsters.

On WBUR’s On Point, host Tom Ashbrook kept repeating that the Tsarnayev image was a “selfie,” as if that compounded the glamor. In fact, that means Tsarnayev took the picture himself with a cell phone, not a fancy camera, and with no makeup artist, hairdresser, or other handlers. That’s how he wanted to present himself online, but that’s also how he looked—which is really what’s so troubling about the image.

In response to the Rolling Stone cover, a state police photographer leaked images of Tsarnayev’s capture. That violated rules about evidence, prejudicial material, and secrecy, but the man was outraged. Why Tsarnayev supposedly looked less sympathetic when he was bleeding, helpless, and surrendering I don’t understand.

Reports keep coming out about the Tsarnayevs, most recently the news that older brother Tamerlan subscribed to various conspiracy-theory periodicals. Today’s Boston Globe noted that in searching the brothers’ apartment and confiscating relevant material, the FBI took away books on Islam but left behind non-Islamic right-wing conspiracy books. “Maybe it’s because it didn’t fit into their thinking about him,” mused one neighbor.

If we’re ever going to figure out what happened with the Tsarnayev brothers, and how to head off trouble from other young men in similar situations, we’ll have to stop fitting people into our thinking and accept some troubling facts: that friendly, handsome boys can turn into murderers; that overreaction can be just as fatal as the initial crime; that ideologies can be excuses for violence instead of spurs.

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