THE BLOG

Killing Tsarnaev

05/19/2015 12:18 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

David Bruck warned jurors that killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would create a martyr, provide a story for America's adversaries to use. The jurors sealed Tsarnaev's fate last week, choosing death. A story is indeed powerful, but instead of focusing on America's adversaries, it is time we asked how America's media have told this story and to what effect.

Terrorism often lacks a story. To give one a story is to make one human. We often only get a chronological plot about how an individual bent on destruction plans and executes a crime. The images that accompany depictions of terror are equally reductive, playing with ethnic, racial, gender and religious stereotypes. While these have by no means been absent throughout the unfolding of the Boston Marathon bombing ordeal, something seemingly more complex also arose: a narrative and a complicated image. While carrying a potential to interrupt the far too familiar stereotypes we've come to expect, the story line contains an ominous thread, tugged on and interlaced with destructive counterterrorism theories and practices.

The story of the Tsarnaev brothers found in the media reads like a retelling of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Dostoyevsky's The Double. In Stevenson's novella, a single man is internally split into two: virtuous Jekyll and vile Hyde. Dostoyevsky's protagonist, Mr. Golyadkin, comes face-to-face with his doppelgänger. Struggles ensue, the results of which are morbid. Hyde consumes Jekyll; Golyadkin goes mad. This is precisely the story of the Tsarnaev brothers that we find in Rolling Stone, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, the New York Times and elsewhere: a tale of identity crises and shadowy, second selves.

Both brothers were said to be unable to "define themselves or where they belonged," the result of cultural, personal and psychological factors.

Tamerlan not only felt out of place in America, a feeling precipitated by personal failures, but even his attempts to fit in with Islamic radicals during a 2012 trip to Dagestan failed. They deemed him "too American." Dzhokhar too struggled to understand and reconstruct his heritage and place of belonging. His life thrown into turmoil by his parents' divorce and their eventually move to Russia, a shrinking group of friends and failing grades.

Tamerlan confided in his mother that he felt there were "two people living in him." His own Hyde eventually became more insistent, coming closer to the surface and issuing orders. For a "deeply fractured" Dzhokhar, this presence emerged in the form of "terrifying nightmares about murder and destruction."

If cultural, personal and psychological pressures created the cracks along which their identities fractured, social media provided the mechanism through which to give life to their shadowy, more sinister selves. Tamerlan maintained a YouTube channel called "terrorism." Dzhokhar maintained two Twitter accounts, one for the teenager everyone knew and the other for (his) Hyde. And it was online that they found al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine.

This is the story of the brothers, leaving us with the problem of telling apart a good kid and a monster. This is the same dilemma that Dostoyevsky eloquently articulated over a century and a half ago:

If one were to set them side by side nobody, absolutely nobody, could have undertaken to distinguish which was the real Mr. Golyadkin and which was the counterfeit, which was the old and which was the new, which was the original and which was the copy (Constance Garnett translation, p. 42).

A narrative not without many shortcomings -- the overwrought focus on the dissolution of the nuclear family, the incompatibility of cultures, the "good mother," and the Internet -- if read sympathetically, it attempts to tell a complicated story.

This narrative, however, has its own sinister double.

There is a troubling resonance in statements like, "It's Tsarnaev's very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him." It bears an eerie resemblance to the warnings of officials and so-called terrorism experts about ordinary people who unpredictably become self-recruited lone wolves. In fact, many of these stories are infused with the views of authorities and experts regarding the wide "constellation of things" that leads one to violence. Theories of radicalization, such as the one developed on behalf of the NYPD, catalog an almost innumerable variety of possible "triggers" -- economic, social, political, personal, the Internet.

In the hands of authorities, this narrative is used to create a shifting threat that lurks within America's borders: Anyone might be radicalized online and every citizen potentially harbors her own Hyde (some undoubtedly more than others). Despite the infrequency of radicalized violence in general and the fact that the evidence regarding the role of the Internet in radicalization is exceptionally weak, the panic generated flips the rarity of homegrown terrorism into one of its most frightening dimensions.

Even more troubling is that this narrative is turned toward the future, used to garner support for intrusive surveillance and preventative policing. We are told that the next bombing might be prevented if only all of the possible factors be open to monitoring (via the NSAs PRISM program, for example). This works alongside other destructive projects based on prejudicial anxieties such as hearings focused exclusively on Muslim radicalization and the use of government informants in mosques.

Almost every literary instance in which one spots his double, it is an experience of terror. But its power can be productive and revelatory rather than reactionary. This narrative, used across cultures, has ancient roots. Its pervasiveness is accounted for by the fact that its main theme of identity crisis is so common and relatable on both an individual and collective level. It harbors the potential to challenge the manner in which we divide our world, between rational and irrational, us and them, human and terrorist. It can reveal the untenable nature of the divisions we employ (such as the incompatibility of cultures) and our own monstrosity in times of fear.

This narrative does not furnish answers, but indicates a hopeful struggle with what is transpiring around us, while never excusing an individual's responsibility for taking another's life. But, when its aim turns from reflective to prospective that potential is lost. The threat is not Tsarnaev's image being reappropriated by America's foes, but by experts and fear mongers within the U.S. Just how deeply intertwined reportage has been with the prospective usage signals the loss of a powerful opportunity to tell a story, to challenge the inhuman parameters of the conflict that has embroiled America since 9/11.