Last week, I had to make a choice. I could either finish Tina Fey’s very enjoyable Bossypants or get a little deeper into the lyrical world of The Mirror of Beauty or I could read Janet Reitman’s article on Dzokhar Tsarnaev, in Rolling Stone. Reitman’s article is 17 pages long, if you print it out as I eventually did. That’s a lot of pages on a 19-year-old boy about whom everything is hearsay since he’s in prison and no one close to him is likely to feel chatty. Plus, as I told a friend who couldn’t believe I was picking 19th century Delhi over 21st century violence, this month I have no Mills & Boons — the local bookstore has become worse than ever. They stopped stocking literature years ago. Now they’ve stopped keeping pulp too. Weep — which means I have to control how much depressing information enters my head. If it hadn’t been for Sgt. Sean Murphy, I’d have ignored the article.

rolling-stone-tsarnaevLike many, Murphy didn’t like the Rolling Stone cover, which is a Tsarnaev selfie. Murphy, a tactical photographer with the Massachusetts police, released a statement with a few unseen photographs, explaining why, to his mind, the cover was offensive.

The truth is that glamorizing the face of terror is not just insulting to the family members of those killed in the line of duty, it also could be an incentive to those who may be unstable to do something to get their face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

The photographs he shared were meant to be seen as a counterpoint to the selfie and more revealing.

This guy is evil. This is the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Not that evil can’t be cover-worthy, fluffed and buffed or otherwise. I can’t remember where I saw it, but some blog/publication put up a set of scans of past issues of American magazines with truly dodgy cover models, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden for TIME. No matter what you think of Tsarnaev, let’s accept that he’s not really a patch on either one of those two gents. I think what’s actually bothering people is that “evil” can be so darn nice looking.

But I digress. Here’s the photo from Murphy’s cache that made me read the Rolling Stone article.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev, photographed by Sgt. Sean Murphy. Nicked from Boston Magazine.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev, photographed by Sgt. Sean Murphy. Nicked from Boston Magazine.

In that photo, Murphy sees evil. I see a bleeding boy with a sniper aimed at his head. It doesn’t help to see this photo in the context of the other photos that Murphy released. Here are a few of them.

(All photos by Sgt. Sean Murphy)

It’s not like I have a soft spot for kids who go around making bombs in their spare time, but what those photos show me is an inordinate number of adults, with and without guns, against one injured kid. They thought they were looking for the next Osama bin Laden and it turned out to be a 19-year-old. Even when they knew that they were going to arrest a boy who was badly injured, a small army seems to have showed up to apprehend him. Murphy’s photos show that by the time they found him, he was wilting from blood loss. He’s outnumbered, there’s a sniper pointing at his head, his blood is everywhere, red lines running down the side of the boat. That’s not evil, that’s tragic. I look at Murphy’s photos and I wonder, how can anyone not feel sorry for the boy in these photos?

That’s why I read Janet Reitman’s article. Because the boy in Murphy’s photographs, rather than the face in the selfie cover, made me want to know more about this kid who is either going to be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. As I’d suspected, the article doesn’t really give you much by way of concrete information about how Tsarnaev turned from harmless pothead to bomb-maker. As Reitman points out, the only ones who could tell you are Dzokhar or Tamerlane. One is dead and the other is in prison. But Murphy et al’s claim that Rolling Stone is glorifying Tsarnaev is absurd. Yes, almost everyone Reitman interviewed seems to be reeling with shock that a good looking boy could have set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. It makes me wonder whether words like “gorgeous” and “handsome”, when used to describe Tamerlane and Dzokhar, actually mean Not Brown And Therefore Not Terroristy. Because otherwise, it seems from most of the interviews that Dzokhar Tsarnaev carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings would be more explicable if he was ugly.

Anyway, Reitman is quite clearly not mollified by how Dzokhar Tsarnaev looks. She tells you things that those photos don’t, like the anti-American spiel Tsarnaev scribbled on the walls of the boat where he spent the night bleeding. (What did he use to write that stuff, I wonder? Was he carrying a marker? Surely not his own blood? I really have watched too much Bollywood) and the fact that it took hours of negotiation to get Tsarnaev to surrender. Reitman goes so far as to write this of the Tsarnaev plot:

… April 15th, 2013, when two pressure-cooker­ bombs exploded near the marathon finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people, including an eight-year-old boy. Close to 300 more were injured by flying shrapnel, with many losing a leg, or an arm, or an eye; a scene of unbelievable carnage that conjured up images of Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv.

Seriously? Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv? Are you kidding me? What the Tsarnaev brothers did at the Boston Marathon was terrible, but you can’t seriously equate three people dying and injury from home-made bombs to proper industrial warfare involving everything from drones to human beings. Incidentally, according to the charges against Tsarnaev, a pressure cooker bomb is a weapon of mass destruction. Yes, a WMD. I’d like to see America target suspected Taliban strongholds with pressure cooker bombs instead of its current pick of killer artillery. Or invade Pakistan and India because let’s face it, we got LOTS of pressure cookers in these countries.

Reading Reitman’s article, which suggests factors that could have turned Tsarnaev into the “monster” who’d write “Fuck America” while lying bleeding in a boat when till recently, he’d been a perfectly average kid. He’s 19 years old and therefore he’s impressionable, is the underlying idea. All those Americans who knew him and didn’t think there was anything wrong weren’t being blonde and clueless. He was a good kid, suggests Reitman, but then foreign ideas — Islam, Dagestan, Chechnya — infiltrated him and chucked the all-American out of Tsarnaev’s body, turning the boy into the monster, the terrorist. Someone needs to be blamed for Tsarnaev not being as angelic as his face suggests; not because he’s cute, but because he’s a kid. When Reitman talks about Tamerlane, the responsibility of the transformation rests entirely upon Tamerlane’s own failures and frustrations. In case of Dzokhar, though, it’s his family disintegrating, his brother’s extremism, poverty, dissatisfaction with his college that’s to blame.

The question of how adult and/or impressionable is a person in their late teens is one that India’s been grappling with since the police declared that the juvenile accused in the gang rape of December 16, 2012, was the most brutal of the rapists. However, since he was 17 years and a few months when he committed the crime, he will at best get a few years in a “reform facility” (three, I think) and there will be no criminal record to his name. There have been demands to amend the law, changing the legal definition of adult from 18 to 16. Unswayed by the clamour, the Supreme Court rejected the plea earlier this month. It’s scary to think that that cruel boy-rapist will, in all likelihood, roam around India freely thanks to his being nine months shy of adulthood, but the court’s verdict is sensible:

There is little doubt that the incident (the Delhi gang rape) which occurred on the night of December16, 2012, was not only gruesome, but almost maniacal in its content, wherein one juvenile, whose role is yet to be established, was involved. But such an incident, in comparison to the vast number of crimes occurring in India, makes it an aberration rather than the rule. … If what has come out from the reports of the Crime Records Bureau is true, then the number of crimes committed by juveniles comes to about 2% of the country’s crime rate.

Years ago, when I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and was recommending it to a friend, I described it as a novel about a “seriously evil kid”. I still feel queasy when I think about Kevin and his sister and her eye. Thinking about the juvenile rapist and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, I’ve been remembering Lionel Shriver’s novel and wondering all over again whether it’s possible for someone to be inherently evil. Because that’s what Murphy’s contending. Underneath all the anger at Rolling Stone is a refusal to accept reasons that would in any way justify or even rationalise the Tsarnaevs’ actions. The fact is, though, there are actions that we find largely unjustifiable*, regardless of how good looking you are; actions like rape, like setting off bombs. Ironically, even at its most sympathetic, Reitman’s article never lets me forget Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s actions. In contrast, Murphy’s photos show me someone who could easily be described as victim.

*Unless ideology like patriotism is used as justification. Even then, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even when they’re in agreement. I’m not saying such behaviour doesn’t have triggers or causes (I’m quite convinced they do); only that our innate discomfort with bloodshed makes us less sympathetic to accepting those triggers and causes as justification. Then again, George Zimmerman was pronounced not guilty. So. Blech. 

2 thoughts on “Teenagers and monsters

  1. Yeah, depressing and scary. Because if the reports aren’t screwed up, then that Delhi kid is very, very screwed in the head. Thanks.

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