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The State Of Tsarnaev's Soul

This undated photo released by the FBI on April 19, 2013 shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. On Friday, May 15, 2015, Tsarnaev was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 2013 Boston Marathon terror attack. (FBI/AP)
This undated photo released by the FBI on April 19, 2013 shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. On Friday, May 15, 2015, Tsarnaev was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 2013 Boston Marathon terror attack. (FBI/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

A question we’re asking in Boston is why marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev broke his silence and apologized, and whether his apology was sincere. People are wondering, “Did he mean it?”

Unless one of his lawyers eventually offers some compelling insight, we’re unlikely ever to know. The slight glimpses we’ve had of Tsarnaev aren’t enough to let us understand much about his sincerity. Yes, no. It’s like trying to tell one warbler from another by the dot of yellow on its neck when the speeding creature flits among tree leaves. Most of us just aren’t that keen-sighted.

And yet, like birders seeking to pin down species, the rest of us seem to want to identify the true markings of his soul. Was he unredeemed, even unredeemable, or was he a person capable of awakening even slowly to the moral horror of what he did? When, during that same sentencing session, he expressed the wish to hear more from the survivors, was he wanting to grasp the suffering he’d caused because he, too, was suffering? Or was he simply hoping to feel a moment of sick power by surveying the expanse of his harm.

Only in time that he no longer has might he have become a person who knew about the nature of his own heart and, then, by extrapolation, about other people’s.

We’d like to know whom we’re killing. I’m not positive why, but I suppose it’s partly because it’s creepy to take a life, and we’d like to feel clear, and justified. More than that, I think we’re trying to sort out what makes people act in evil ways. Are they truly other, or are they just us gone askew? We’d feel safer if we believed we could distinguish.

My guess is that that we can’t know who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is because he doesn’t know. He strikes me as a lost man-child (not unlike Dylann Roof) grasping for an identity the way someone drowning grasps for anything that floats. The catastrophic confusion within his head, the terrible thing he did, is taking its place within a swirling mind filled with unsettled pieces: profound dislocation, family trauma, parental abandonment, rage, weed, a habit of dissembling, a strand of little-boy tenderness, and the thick goop of ideology he hoped would save him. That whole chaotic mess of unsorted feelings would likely have taken years, if not decades to settle. Only in time that he no longer has might he have become a person who knew about the nature of his own heart and, then, by extrapolation, about other people’s.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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