As we find ourselves satiated with the lurid details of the Boston Marathon Bombing, the identification of the bombers and their capture, we notice it at the bottom of the list of “Related Stories:” The comic relief story: “ Social Media Shows Support for Alleged Bomber’s Innocence.” While authorities seem to have amassed overwhelming evidence of Dzhokhar’s guilt, including video and photographs of the suspect in the act as well as a hospital bed confession, which, even if the prosecution was placed in the hands of a first year law student, would make a conviction a virtual certainty, a mix of Dzhokhar’s friends and sympathizers, conspiracy theorists, government and media skeptics and other assorted nutbags are actively and earnestly propounding the 19 year-old’s innocence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
The temptation here is to either chuckle at Dzhokhar’s supporters’ refusal to accept the incursion of reality into their lives or express anger that there is any support at all for one who seems likely to have committed such an atrocity, and utilize this as an opportunity to allow ourselves to exclude these voices and belittle their message. After all, one has no obligation to pay attention to opinions so blatantly in denial of the obvious.
But perhaps there is a way to look at this constructively. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that this is a clumsy and inarticulate attempt at positional bargaining: to stake out an extreme position and cling to it unwaveringly in the hope of getting the other side to move toward a compromise. But underneath the bluster and the vitriol that we must dismiss, there may be some nugget of value to be found in this message. The nugget is that the act committed was unwarranted, atrocious and perverted, but it was a human being that committed it. The picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerging is a confusing one. It is difficult, if not impossible to reconcile the video images of the man with the white ball cap turned around as he casually strolls through the crowd and reportedly lays his backpack down at the feet of children, stands there a moment, then walks away 10 seconds before the bomb detonates, and the picture painted by his friends and acquaintances of an athletic and personable 19 year-old college student. It is seductive to want to exclude the evil that committed this act, to cleanse our society, to demonstrate why it lies outside the bounds of our group identity and to protect ourselves by excluding it from our moral circle, and wreak vengeance upon it.
There may, in fact, be no reconciliation possible, just as it seems likely that there will never be a satisfactory explanation for what motivated this attack. There may be no discernable difference between the face of evil within and the face of innocence led astray by a forceful and angry older brother. And while Dzhokhar is both an immigrant and a Moslem, he is not an outsider, whether we like it or not, he is part of our whole, a US citizen, and a human being. As one of us who has broken trust and injured us through a vicious exploitation of the vulnerability of our society he is deserving of severe punishment. But as a parent punishes a child, it is not to be meted out with exclusion, cruelty and vengeance but with an opportunity for repair and redemption. Our society clearly has demonstrated that it has the upper hand; if nothing else, law enforcement has pointedly demonstrated its prowess in identifying, apprehending and incarcerating the two assailants and we have nothing to prove in terms of who is in charge. Though our wounds may be too fresh for forgiveness at this point, and circumstances may not warrant it now, nor may they ever, there is no denying the humanity of this person who injured us. particularly this wounded 19 year-old boy. By treating him with hatred and contempt, we are only creating more angry people and enemies. By treating him compassionately and acting to a higher standard, we are co-opting those who feel threatened by us.
On the other side, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Rep. Pete King have expressed support for denying him his rights and treating him as an “enemy combatant,” and many are calling for the death penalty. When wounds are fresh, there is always satisfaction in planning revenge. But there is now time to reflect and allow higher-level thought and better instincts to take control. But Messrs.’ Graham and King also have a valid pearl of wisdom at the heart of their bluster; that Dzhokhar, if proven guilty, as seems likely, should take responsibility for his criminal acts and should not be judged lightly.
This may be an opportune time to observe how denying this young man his rights, his humanity and his life would only serve to further motivate and empower his online supporters. There is no justification for this. Allowing him to retain the shred of human dignity he has left will show evenhandedness, justice and inclusiveness and make us a better example for the world.