Dzokhar Tsarnaev & Our Need to Demonize

I have been following with interest the unfolding photographic saga of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev.

Rolling Stone magazine decided to put his image on their cover and they chose a very specific self-portrait for very specific reasons. It is no accident that the image is of a youthful, attractive young man who could be anyone really.

This is the point of course as the editors stated inside the magazine – this guy is like many of their readers, a young, somewhat aimless, university-aged kid that ended up willingly involving himself in a plot that saw people die. The magazine cover calls him a monster (something many people seem to have missed).

The cover is a play in contrasts. The editors want us to ask how such a nice looking young man could also be a monster. He should be ugly. He should be wearing a mask or be all scarred up or covered in pox. Monsters should look like monsters or else how would we ever spot them.

This is the point the editors at Rolling Stone are trying to make – monsters are not what they used to be (or maybe they never were) and we need to challenge or age-old misconceptions about good and evil; more importantly we need to challenge our understandings of what causes a person to get to a place where they can do evil in the first place.

The reaction to the cover of Rolling Stone is understandable, particularly amongst those in Boston and others directly impacted by the bombing – one of revulsion. There is a belief that Rolling Stone, either intentionally or unintentionally, is seeking to soften the face of evil and make Dzokhar Tsarnaev into something a little better than he really is.

This has directly led to a decision by a Massachusetts State Police photographer to release some more graphic and gritty photos of Dzokhar Tsarnaev at his arrest. Tired, dishevelled and bloody, in one picture resigned with the bright red dot of a sniper’s laser sight on his forehead ready to blow his brains out should he try anything.

This is the “real” Dzokhar Tsarnaev according to the officer. The old, innocence portrayed in the Rolling Stone photo was given up the day he murdered.

Of course the truth is rarely so clear cut and the reality is that both of those images reflect Dzokhar Tsarnaev.

The questions Rolling Stone are attempting to ask are very important ones. We need to understand why people do what they do, especially when their actions lead to pain and death. Why did Dzokhar Tsarnaev decide that people needed to die? One might respond “I don’t care why just kill him the way he killed others” and this will very likely happen but it does nothing to prevent the next one. It is understanding and not eradication that is the most important goal to achieve right now.

Still this runs contrary to a fairly basic human need – that to demonize the ones who hurt us.

It is an instinct of preservation to do this because it sets apart the evil one from the rest of us. It says – this person is inhuman while we are human. What this monster is capable of we are not. It tends to be retroactive. In the cases of serial killers much work has been done to show that they were always monsters, never human really, just wolves in sheep’s clothing hiding amongst the herd and waiting to attack.

No one wants to believe that Dzokhar Tsarnaev may have been a nice guy at one point; that he may have been human. No one wants to believe that somewhere in there he may still be a nice and likable young man. If he is than anybody could be Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Any one of us could have the potential to become this monster – this Frankenstein human, not human manufactured thing that scares us because it might be us to a greater degree than we are willing to admit or accept.

We can destroy the monster but more will be made in the end unless we gain a better understanding of how it came about in the first place. The problem with understanding (and another reason we fight it) is because understanding can lead to compassion and compassion can lead to forgiveness and what would a world that forgives monsters look like? We don’t really know but we know it frightens us.

2 thoughts on “Dzokhar Tsarnaev & Our Need to Demonize

  1. I have to admit that I didn’t understand all the outrage surrounding the fact that RS put him on the cover. It was abundantly clear to me that they weren’t trying to make him a star (with apologies to Dr. Hook). They simply wanted to ask some questions and -gasp- maybe even do some real journalism while they were at it. Kudos to their editorial staff. It could not have been an easy decision.


    • Agreed. I received an interesting comment when I re-posted this to Reddit (yes I am an attention whore). The commentator pointed out that he knows almost nothing about the victims because the media coverage has been too heavily weighted toward the accused. I thought this was a good point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.