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When I was 13, nearly 20 years ago, I met a boy. We were at a wedding reception; he was blonde and sweet. He shyly invited me to dance — the first boy to ever ask. The next morning, under the door of my family’s hotel room, there was a note, which I quickly couriered to the bathroom. “I enjoyed dancing with you. Will you be my pen pal?”
At first, the letters were ebullient. I wrote about my Boston suburb, its acres of hiking trails and its “famous” ice cream stand, about my close friends and family. He wrote about New York — city, I imagined as a child, but he was from the distant outskirts — his school, friends and family. He sent carefully labeled mix tapes, introducing me to bands I’d never heard of. He called me pretty.
What if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had grown up when dialogue wasn’t torrential — when sending and receiving words was a more considered, more personal, more responsible act?
He mentioned visiting, but I avoided the topic: Revelatory communication, to me, was best kept separate from real life — and, plus, my parents would never agree. He started to send me drawings of robots and monsters that seemed, at first, misplaced symbols of his fondness. But as the images got gorier, it became clear that this could be something else. With the images, his descriptions became darker, his questions about when he would see me more urgent. I kept the letters going, no longer enjoying them, just wanting to get to the bottom of the rabbit hole. Finally: “I really need to visit you, and if I don’t, I kind of think I will do something,” he ended a five-page letter.
I was naive, but I knew what danger sounded like. With my mother’s blessing, I sent the letter to his parents with a note of my own: “I thought you should know.” I did not, in fact, know if I should be the person to inform or remind them — I wasn’t sure which — that their son was troubled. My parents told me that his parents were grateful I had sent the letter. I never heard directly from them, and I never heard from him again.
In the angry and proud and uncertain days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the questions are as myriad as the sympathetic tokens that line Boylston Street. Many of the uncertainties center on those who knew the suspects. And more importantly, what did they know?
On Wednesday, three of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends were arrested; among other serious charges, they are accused of removing incriminating items from Dzhokhar’s room after the bombing. According to preliminary reports, they didn’t have advance knowledge of the attack. If this is true: Why not? Were they willfully or inadvertently oblivious? Why didn’t they — or Dzhokhar’s other friends, including those on social media — see the first shoots of threat and dig a little deeper? Did anyone ask the difficult questions?
Where were the letter readers?
Like many others, I've spent hours poring over Dzhokhar’s Twitter feed. Some of his posts made me laugh. (“Beemer, Benz or Bentley? Honda, bro,” from December.) Others — especially those about his love for small creatures — both softened my disgust and increased my discomfort. (“I'll always break for a crossing squirrel,” also from December.)
But sometime around last spring, and especially this fall, his timbre seems to change. “A decade in America already, I want out,” in March 2012. “People that don't know how to apologize will be sorry one day,” in November 2012. “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause,” in early March and “No one is really violent until they’re with the homies” in late March. And, of course, “Ain't no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people,” on Marathon Monday.
Ain't no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people
— Jahar (@J_tsar) April 16, 2013
Who received these missives and failed to see the threat?
It’s not as simple as that, of course. Things have changed since my languid letter writing days. Tweets — and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s tweets especially — are cryptic, often hyperbolic: 140-character haikus that can only be fully understood in context and retrospect.
And even when danger is seemingly detected, communication today does not come with an imperative: This letter is for you. This is your concern. An expression of anger or anguish on social media is like a single, errant bullet in a crowd, alerting most, grazing some, but impacting nobody in particular.
“There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don't hear them [because] they're the minority,” Dzhokhar tweeted on April 15.
Or because we are no longer responsible for hearing it.
An expression of anger or anguish on social media is like a single, errant bullet in a crowd, alerting most, grazing some, but impacting nobody in particular.
And so I wonder: What if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had grown up only a few decades ago, when dialogue wasn’t torrential — when sending and receiving words was a more considered, more personal, more responsible act? What if he had put forth his views when quotations had quote marks, when emotions and ideas were stated plainly instead of being overstated, straining to be heard over the din? In another era, might there have been someone on the other end who understood that it was her duty to read, to understand, and to do something?
Perhaps. But I also know this: It is not always enough. Almost 15 years after receiving that last, later diverted, letter from my childhood pen pal, I Googled him. On some level I expected it: a video of him in a courtroom, his blonde hair mostly gone, his blue eyes turned down. “I fully understand your hatred for me,” he said to those willing to hear it. During an argument, he had stabbed a teenager to death.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we can’t change a tragic story — even when we’ve been careful to listen for its likely end.
This program aired on May 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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