Of all the rage-inducing media fumbles of the past two weeks, including the one where I leapt out of my chair after the false arrest report, the blunder that lingers, unapologetically, is the characterization of Dzhokar as a child. We have been told that he "followed his big brother around like a puppy." The implication of such a story is that he is too young to be held fully accountable for his actions, and it's a dangerous idea that must be put to rest.
It's easy to conclude that the suspect's age, 19, is the only reason for this sentiment. On Boston Public Radio this week, I heard callers referring to Dzhokhar as "just another Cambridge Rindge and Latin kid." (CRLS is the high school he attended with Robin Young's nephew, where I also taught summer school in 2008). Another caller referenced "just a 19-year-old kid hiding in the boat." I've heard the same language in many conversations. And few in the media seem willing to challenge it outside of The Onion.
But it's not merely the reckless search for understanding, nor Dzhokar's age, that is leading to tales of the older brother-as-master-manipulator. Even today, we continue to distance the actors from the actions. We hear stories of a mysterious "Misha" who influenced Tamerlan. Why are we so captivated by these speculative narratives of an unknown Rasputin?
Because they are easier to accept. Because they allow us to continue seeing young men as innocents, or at least as too immature to take full responsibility. It's easier to accept that there is some nefarious evil-doer lurking in the shadows, corrupting the youth of America. It's easier to think of Dzhokhar as a recent high-school graduate instead of as a grown man with an urge to kill, maim and destroy. A Rasputin figure would allow us to spare the "kid" from blame. We resist characterizing Dzhokar as a pure criminal because we want to keep our candy-coated view of the young white male 19-year-olds of the world, skipping their freshmen lecture classes and drinking just enough beer for a buzz. We don't want to think of that college freshman with the backwards baseball cap, American citizenship and white skin as a terrorist.
At the age of 19, you are an adult. When we call Dzhokhar a kid, we are expressing a value we have already internalized as a society: that youth is an excuse.
The youth excuse rears its head often when we talk about young men committing crimes. Take the Steubenville High School rape case. As we were told by CNN, the rapists were young men with such "promising futures"! And so young. Surely they merely made a simple mistake, were led astray by someone older and wiser. At 26, even Tamerlan is a victim of "brainwashing."
As we search for answers in a criminal investigation, we must eventually confront the truth that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a citizens of these United States. We will find ourselves dissatisfied with the explanations from family members and imams and patriotic uncles because they will not fully explain why an American teenager turned against the Bostonians and the Cantabrigians who knew him as a child, who helped raise him in one of the most progressive, liberal cities in America.
And though a full explanation behind Dzhokhar's actions may be far-reaching and complex, or it may be crude and disturbed, no rationale, no explanation of others' influence or his age, will ever make him an innocent. Martin Richard is the kid in this terrible story. To call Dzhokhar a kid is an insult to Martin and all the victims of these crimes, and it suggests sympathy that he doesn't deserve.