After tragedy struck an already rattled nation on April 15, and the unbearably soft face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was thrust into every living room, we scrutinized with incredulity the young man's life before the Boston bombings. We looked to his friends and teachers, hoping they'd tell us that he killed cats or collected guns, but instead they said he was "normal," even "wonderful." Sure, they said, he smoked a lot of pot and even sold some for extra cash, but lots of college kids do that.
Initial reports said the brothers had "no friends in America," but as the portrait of a normal, Americanized Dzhokhar emerged, that became hard to believe. The feeling of isolation was later attributed to his brother Tamerlan, who, seven years Dhzokhar's senior didn't immigrate at an age where he could seamlessly adjust.
Even the Muslim-themed Twitter accounts he followed (and there were only three) were hardly radical: one is called "Muslim Smiles." A short-lived Instagram account did deliver some dirt in the form of photos Dzhokhar had liked, which were reportedly tagged with words like #FreeChechenia and #Jihad. Like everything else, this news came as a shock to those who knew him.
It's par for the course after a sudden, violent event to dig through the life of the alleged perpetrator. Most of the time, something comes up fairly quickly: crazy-eyed Adam Lanza lived in a house full of weaponry, the eyebrow less Jared Loughner turned out to be a diagnosed schizophrenic who hated the government. With Dzhokhar, we went digging for radicalization, insanity and anger and found some regular kid. When not much bad came up and the normal came flooding in, the usual post-tragedy protocol was rendered impossible to follow. Instead of relishing in the depictions of suspect as madman, we are presented with a face and a story that, if not sympathy, arouses emotions outside the spectrum of rage. Of course, something did go wrong with Dhzokhar, who now sits in a bare cell facing charges of the worst kind.
Was Dzhokhar brainwashed by his older brother? Tamerlan, shot dead, can't tell us, and probably wouldn't if he could. Or did the mother, who believes the bombing was fake and was recorded "indirectly discussing jihad" with Tamerlan in 2011, urge her son to kill and destroy? And we still haven't completely answered, "who is Misha?" the Armenian Muslim convert said to have influenced the brothers.
No matter whose influence led up to the heinous events of April 15, it's unlikely that Dzhokhar will ever see the light of day again. His face, however, so vastly different from the faces of terror suspects we're used to seeing, will likely remain in the public memory for decades to come, perhaps beyond the memory of the event itself. Already covered in hearts on the Tumblr pages of teenage girls, the face could in 20 years become a Che Guevara-like emblem — worn by people who understand nothing of the violence behind it.
In a rush to say anything at all about the suspect, reporters, stunned themselves, inadvertently said some nice things when it was better to say nothing at all. The outlandish conspiracy theories and claims of total innocence that have sprouted up following the bombing aren't based on independent research — they're the ideas of people who don't want that boy to be guilty. Dumbfoundedly rehashing the same old "he seemed like such a normal guy" astonishment is a dangerous game to play in a situation like this, especially considering the recent frequency of mass-murder events. If we can learn anything from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it's that people, no matter how normal, are gullible and easily influenced. In the aftermath of a violent act, it's best to refrain from exploiting this trait. At best, it leads to national confusion. At worst, restless young men who decide they want to be like the boy on TV.