I was fascinated by the stories that began emerging on the day his identity was discovered: He was liked at school, friendly, a good student and very different from his pugnacious older brother. I constructed a narrative about Dzhokhar — the younger brother pulled into horror out of love for his fanatic sibling.
I told one of my students that I felt sorry for Dzhokhar. She looked at me in horror. "He's a monster!" she said. That jolted me back to reality. She was right of course, and my sympathy momentarily embarrassed me, as though it put me in the realm of unsavory outsiders, people not safely ensconced within the walls of propriety.
Flash forward to today, and my memory of Dzhokhar has faded into clear but distant sympathy for the victims and survivors. I read recently about the attractive young man in the now-iconic photographs who lost both his legs; his ongoing pain was palpable and heartbreaking, embedding the horror of the bombings in my mind.
So it is through the lens of my sympathy for the victims and my disgust for the criminals that I heard about the picture of Dzhokhar on the cover of August's Rolling Stone magazine. Nevertheless, at first the cover didn't seem problematic to me. The pop-culture-loving, brazen-excess-appreciating, don't-go-with-the-crowd side of me wanted to scoff at those who disapproved. "Come on," I said, "Dzhokhar is intrinsic to our public sphere, what's the problem?"
But I was surprised — the cover also activated a more conventionally moralistic side of me. The article tries to understand Dzhokhar's inner struggle, but we will never know what's really inside his head. How much remorse does he feel? We can't ever know for sure.
Why do we want to know the specific details of his life, anyway? It's too late — his victims are dead or maimed or terrorized, and, assuming he is convicted, he'll be spending the rest of his life in jail, or else murdered by the state. It's such a waste, we say. Such an insane waste. We say it to distance ourselves from it, but we also say it because there are terrible wastes all over our normal-person lives.
We too can get sucked into the wrong directions, or our kids can; horrible things happen and there's nothing we can do. The helplessness we feel about that can be overwhelming, and talking together about public tragedies can soothe us because it joins us in an attempt to make sense. At least we're helpless together; at least we can talk about it and share it.
Rolling Stone's cover taunts us, in a way. They chose a picture in which Dzhokhar looks like a rock star, and his glamorized face makes him seem like one of us. We don't want him to be one of us! At first we wanted to view him as a terrorist, but then it became clear that in many ways he is a normal American. That bothers us, and so we reject the cover. Or some of us embrace it because we like to be taunted, like to be made to consider the glamorized image of a criminal, because it makes us potentially, productively uneasy.
But I don't know. Killing isn't glamorous. Rolling Stone tells us, in an editor's note above the article, that it is publishing Dzhokhar's story because it is "important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens."
Is it? Can we gain a more complete understanding of the tragedy by glamorizing as well as studying Dzhokhar? There's a big difference between glamorizing and understanding. And how much does even understanding Dzhokhar really help us?
Yes, I'm curious about his life, but I also just want to close my eyes to guns and murder and shooting. I can't. We can't. Killers aren't going away. But maybe we should insist, vehemently and brazenly, that glamorizing them is never the way for moral people to go.
Irene Papoulis of West Hartford teaches writing at Trinity College.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun