'Bro' Bombers: How We Pop the Balloon of Terror with Words

Since we learned their names one week ago, some have called Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev terrorists, a labeling supported by the news that they hatched a plan to bomb New York — not just "party" there. Others have called them bros, and maybe — just maybe — that's a way of regaining some semblance of power.

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Today The New Republic's Noreen Malone brings up an interesting point that falls somewhere within that heady Venn diagram of news and semantics (i.e., relevant to our interests). One week ago, after the FBI released photos of suspected Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev in their ball caps looking like your average college students, one of the most frequent colloquial descriptions of them was the word bros. That spawned a surge of related bro-words: brofiling, for instance, "Brosama Bin Laden," and bro-ish, Malone writes.

Even when describing people who aren't suspected of bombing marathons, bro is not exactly a compliment. It's "the guy crushing Natty Lights, the guy laughing at Dane Cook, the guy in, yes, the white baseball cap," Malone explains. But even the most negative connotation of bros is a far cry from the associations we have with words like evil-doers, evil people, evil men, and killers, all of which George W. Bush used to describe terrorists in the wake of September 11, 2001. Prior to those phrasings, he employed the decidedly weaker folks, as linguist Ben Zimmer reminded me: Bush said, "I ... have ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to helping the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act."

On Monday following the bombing President Obama refrained from calling the Tsarnaevs (who at that point hadn't been identified) much of anything. He said, "What we don't yet know, however, is who carried out this attack or why ... Whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual." The next day he declared the bombings an "act of terror," which would make the brothers terrorists, a labeling supported by the detail that Tamerlan Tsarnaev's name had been added to terrorist watch lists by the FBI and the CIA, as well as the news that the two had hatched a plan to bomb New York—not just "party" there.

Presidents can't very well call people bros. But the general public can, and did. Steven Poole, author of Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, told me, "Evidently bros has a recognizable meaning, denoting a particular type of young American male — people calling the Tsarnaevs 'bros' were presumably expressing surprise that such people could be bombers, as well as delighting in the double meaning, for the bros were actually brothers too. Compared to calling people terrorist suspects, which unfortunately has seen a resurgence thanks to these events, or even evil folks, as George W. Bush once memorably put it, with a weird combination of theological judgment and domestic homeliness, bros is almost friendly, and certainly less prejudicial."

Bros isn't synonymous with evil, with terrorists, or with suspected bombers. Bros are far more mundane than that, as Malone explains, just kind of "alpha male idiots," a kind of folks, maybe. Bros are not by definition "armed and extremely dangerous," as appears on the FBI's wanted poster for Dzhokar.

That evil-doers or terrorists might resemble the average bro, though—or, for that matter, a 19-year-old kid—is its own kind of terrifying. We don't want to think that people who do such things could be familiar, resembling the boy next door or that quiet, otherwise unremarkable neighbor or coworker. (Even if some people thinks this is what the media is trying to portray.) But evil doesn't wear a certain kind of hat, have a certain color skin, go to particular school, or live in a particular place. Terrorists could look like bros, but they could look like anyone.

Malone suggests we retire a word like bro "when it becomes more empty than the things it supposedly dismisses," and she may be right. A meaningless word is of no value to anyone. But there's another level, too, I think, which is that using the term bros to describe people who've killed and wounded many, spawning a mini-reign of terror, is a kind of linguistic way of taking the punch out of something inconceivably awful. Malone writes, "Dubbing the suspect bros was in large part gallows humor, a way of dealing with the surprise that these bombers appeared homegrown, a threat from inside our culture." Maybe it's also a way of puncturing that balloon of terror—or even insulting those who've committed awful acts, or regaining some semblance of power over them. It's like what happened when their Uncle Ruslan called them "losers." If we don't call them terrorists, they don't terrorize, maybe. If we don't give them the credit they clearly wanted, if they are instead just bros, maybe some part of their power dissipates, too. They might have bragged that they were the Boston bombers, but they surely didn't brag to anyone that they were losers, or, for that matter, bros.

As Charles P. Pierce writes for Esquire, "Losers can kill people as easily as winners can, and ennobling the actions of a couple of bloodthirsty square pegs by draping those actions with vast, geopolitical significance is a bigger disservice to their victims than laughing at the two of them is. Let them be ridiculed. Let them be tried. Let them be convicted. Let us then not hear of them again. But let them be ridiculed first. It's healthy."

If calling the Tsarnaevs bros makes us feel in some way more in control of the chaos they wrought—and if it functions to belittle their actions and even help us move beyond them—surely there's value in that. In any case, you can't really stop people from clinging to whatever words they like, nor from viral reactions to certain words and meanings coming forth. As Poole puts it, "The punning elaborations such as brofiling just go to show that American linguistic creativity is as healthy and mischievous as ever. And if we 'retired' bro, wouldn't we also have to give up the delightfully useful bromance?"

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