James Flaherty is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Dzhokhar is my neighbor. I might have waited in line behind him at CVS. We might have exchanged a glance of droll amusement passing through rush-hour traffic on Mass. Ave. He conceivably could have caught the T with me every day, and I just never realized it.
By 9:00 a.m. on Friday, any pretense I had of going to work had vanished, as MEMA ordinance required Cambridge residents to shelter in place. I’d woken up three hours earlier to a text from my dad: “Mass transit closed. OK?” As I resigned myself to the commentators of Boston Public Radio, I quickly became privy to their frustrations—repeated ad nauseam, increasingly bothersome to me—about the commonplace and unremarkable appearances of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. “They look so normal.” “They look just like us.”
Apparently, this was a cause for shock and disappointment.
Consider this: Is the myth of stereotype really one that warrants shock? Do we actually feel threatened because we might have something in common with those who pose a threat? Do we rescind the common ground of neighbors so quickly and hastily because it makes us feel safer?
Various editorials seek to remind us how swell we are, and to paint the bombers as barbaric downers. “We’ll carry on exactly as before,” they say. We’re very keen on saying how great our default mode is, and how there’s nothing terrorists can do to convince us otherwise.
Of course, Monday’s crime was horrific—I don’t dispute that. As year-long residents of Cambridge, my community, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev perpetrated what is clearly, on a certain level, a betrayal of their community’s trust. But remind me something: Why should people labeled as guilty be less our neighbors than they were before? Why should we pretend we have nothing in common the instant they fall under suspicion, however appropriate and in the public’s interest? More worrisome to me is this question: Are we that eager to punish? Are we that quick to condemn?
Sitting at home on Friday, head-sick with media amazement and speculation, I wondered what it would be like to put aside that knee-jerk impulse and pursue an alternative response. As it turned out, my attempt led me to rather obvious stuff.
Here’s what I saw: An eight-year age gap separates Tamerlan Tsarnaev from his younger brother, Dzhokar—the same age gap that separates me from my little brother. There’s been some speculation that Tamerlan may have roped in his little brother. Views have supported that many criminal pairings work along a similar principle. One believes, the other follows. Having egged my own little brother into various embarrassments and one-sided jokes, I can attest that the older-brother mystique affords a persuasive power easily abused. Likewise, I know firsthand that you can feel much less alone and much more a part of something with your older brother’s seal of approval.
Add to this the fact that Dzhokhar was nineteen. When this detail was first disclosed, I’ll confess to being not surprised in the least. More than any phase of my young life, being an eighteen-to-twenty-year-old male was one of particularly propulsive and erratic wants and needs. You’ll find few things as starved for sense and stubborn to the obvious as a nineteen-year-old boy. And these qualities leave you vulnerable and impressionable. The statement about not having any friends that Dzhokhar supposedly put out there is precisely the kind of remark I made at his age (even if it wasn’t true, and judging from what we’ve heard in the past day, from Dzhokhar’s former classmates at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the remark paints a less-than-accurate picture).
This is to say nothing of the fact that these guys were outsiders. Home was far off. Having spent the past two decades as the only black person in all-white classrooms and offices, I’m no stranger to difficulty relating, either.
It’s worth saying that I have no privileged information about these brothers to speak of. I know little about their national background, motives, or the circumstances of their last, fatal week together. All to say, the proximity of these events to my home has made me think. Because our homes, generally speaking, are the same.
More legally informed people than me will determine what comes of Dzhokhar, and this will play out regardless of my stance. Therefore, civic obligation doesn’t require that I wish him ill, that I want him promptly and officiously punished. It does not require anything of my heart at all. Condemning is rather easy, certainly—and satisfying. It appeases the part of me that manufactures the illusion of being safe.
Make no mistake: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar denied this kind of empathy to the people they killed. But let’s not allow the mania of insecurity fool us into thinking we can claim “normal” all to ourselves. In light of Monday’s tragedy, it’s easy to beat our chests, condemn the perpetrators, and champion a return to business as usual. But clearly “normal” is far more tenuous than we admit. Our estimation of and attitude toward our neighbors requires a closer look, especially if we can’t even sort out what we owe them and who they are.