Enough Sympathy: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Is Not a Victim

Pressure from an older brother is no excuse for murder.

Left: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Right: Injured victims of the blasts at the Boston Marathon. (AP/Charles Krupa)

Since his capture Friday evening at the end of a long, sad week, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev thankfully hasn't provided much in dramatic news. Hospitalized and in custody, he could barely speak at a court appearance due to a (possibly self-inflicted) gun wound to the throat.

Well, media famously abhors a vacuum. So we're now witnessing a strange new phenomenon: sympathy for the alleged Boston bomber.

A big part of this is an emerging narrative that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, was the driving force behind the attacks. Consider, for example, the Saturday Gawker post "Did Tamerlan Tsarnaev Pressure His Younger Brother Into Terrorism?" The article seemingly suggests that Dzhokhar would be less morally responsible if the bombings were his brother's idea. Soon enough Gawker commenters were expressing skepticism that such a sweet boy could even be involved, doubtless driven by media reports that his classmates thought he was a " sweetheart," " really nice " or, according to his father, a " true angel."

A greater and bolder array of pro-Dzhokhar sentiment emerged in the days to follow. There's the Amanda Palmer poem mocked around the internet, born out of "empathy and sadness" for Dzhokhar and, according to Palmer herself, composed in under ten minutes. There's a Daily Beast article provocatively titled "The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Admiration Society," documenting the handful of conspiracy theorists who claim Dzhokhar was set up. Not to be outdone, the Huffington Post ran an America Magazine essay by a Jesuit deacon titled " Dear Dzhokhar, I Can't Hate You." "You are just a kid," it reads, "You must have been so afraid. You were a victim like so many are victims."

Speaking as a mushy-headed liberal whose eyes have moistened for six years every time Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" commercial comes on the TV, this all sounds like a conservative parody of mushy-headed liberal thinking. It's reminiscent of the kind of person who sees George W. Bush's dog paintings and forgets his involvement in two wars put on credit and a global economic collapse.

Let's be serious: Dzhokhar is not a victim like his victims. The language used in these articles makes him sound like a well-meaning addict or someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's neither. Dzhokhar is charged with planting bombs that maimed and killed scores of people. If it was his brother's idea, Dzhokhar carried it out along with him. A brother's pressure doesn't excuse ding-dong-ditching, to say nothing of murder. He utterly failed by any ethical standard: Not only did he not stop his brother, he contributed to the carnage.

So where does this kind of reaction come from?

And why the sense of déjà vu? For me it's probably because it's only been a few months since the death of Chris Dorner. The former LAPD officer claimed he was fired for being a whistleblower and then murdered two people in Irvine, CA, in an anti-law enforcement crusade. After the LAPD set fire to the mountain cabin he was hiding in, Dorner was declared a " folk hero."

In the Dorner case it's easy to see public sympathy as an expression of frustration and powerlessness. Distrust of law enforcement generally and the LAPD specifically left an opening for a vigilante to capture the public imagination.

Dzhokhar is different though--his motives are still not totally clear. But perhaps that's part of the reason for our sympathy. With Dzhokhar as a blank slate, it's easy to project ourselves onto him. We can wonder whether love for his brother led him to do things he otherwise wouldn't. As scary as it is to acknowledge, all of us have probably fantasized about violence at some point in our lives. Perhaps, we think, any of us might have turned out like him. Perhaps all it takes is feeling enough like a loser, as Dzhokhar's uncle called the boys, to be pushed to such a terrible act.

All these attempts to get inside Dzhokhar's head and understand his mental processes have an unintended side-effect: empathy. Just as reading novels is proven to increase our empathy, reading dozens of articles hinting at different possible motivations increases our empathy for the main character of this story.

Let's remember, though, that it might not be deserved, that it might even be grotesque and wrong. We still know very little. We have a responsibility to try to understand context and not to whip up misplaced hatred. But we should also be careful not to invent justifications for a heinous crime, and even more careful not to suggest that our own imagined justifications lessen the suspect's moral culpability.

In the end it just doesn't matter how sweet Dzhokhar's classmates say he is if he's guilty of all he's alleged to have done.