It is hard to understand how Boston bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could go from terrorist to teen heartthrob. Let's start by clarifying that teens obsessed with him are the exception not the rule. That being said, anyone who could emulate this young man is seemingly disturbing. So why have some teens taken to social networking channels with #freejahar? (Wrong spelling, but we get the point.) Take a look on Instagram and Tumblr, and you'll find photo collages starring the 19-year-old, that he is too cute to have committed such atrocities. Also, the hashtag #freejahar is heating up.
In reality, this type of obsession is not new. When serial killer Ted Bundy was arrested a similar phenomenon occurred. Those obsessive teens, however, lacked the social networking sites of today that provide a collective forum.
So why have some teens become love struck by such a dangerous young man?
Tsarnaev's college friends report being shocked by his actions. Most of them describe him as as a regular guy. His boyish grin and tousled hair are a far cry from what we would expect a dangerous terrorist to resemble. The picture most of us conjur up is more akin to the Unabomber or Osama bin Laden, both of whom at least looked the part. To accept that Tsarnaev is as dangerous and cold-blooded as his alleged crimes suggest is to acknowledge that the face of evil is not so easy to detect. This is certainly a somewhat scary -- perhaps intolerable -- reality for us to wrestle with.
Adolescents are egocentric by nature. This factor very much plays into why a teen might fail to acknowledge the facts in this case. In the search for identity, teens are naturally looking for ways to define themselves. The teen years are also a time when the ability to think abstractly results in an "eyes wide open" attitude. Teens begin to truly see the world around them. The teen years are often about passion and fighting for causes. Egocentrism can cause teens to believe that they know better than the authority figures who surround them.
The idea that this young man is a victim could seem edgy and innovative to some teens. He looks more like a scruffy college kid than a threat to national security. This can lead some teens to ponder: What if everyone has got it wrong; what if instead he is an innocent victim? This fantasy is easy for a teen to envision. This idea becomes more plausible the more disconnected a teen is from the actual occurrences in Boston. If, for example, a teen does not have any direct connection to the events, it is less likely that she will experience the emotions associated with it.
So the question then becomes, what should a parent do if their teen has jumped onto this disturbing bandwagon? Certainly it begins with a conversation. Teens want to be heard and they want to feel empowered. It is important to listen to a teen's opinions and rationale, even when what she is saying sounds irrational. After hearing her out discuss the facts of the situation including the impact the bombings have had on the innocent people affected. Empathy is a powerful motivator. Even armed with the facts however, some teens will fail to acknowledge the reality.
This is difficult to understand, perhaps even devastating. Years from now it is likely that these teens will back and regret their disturbing defense of the Boston bombing suspect.
Perhaps the best we can do right now is to avoid feeding into this distorted fantasy. It is important not to repost their disturbing messages even though the macabre tends to fascinate us. Without a real forum it is likely that most teens will move forward and forget about this idea. The few diehards will be left to pine for this sinister suspect alone, until they move onto the next distorted object of desire. Jane Fonda is still making apologies for her photo op with the Viet Cong in 1974, it seems that some foolish fancies are not quickly forgotten.
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Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, Psy. D. is currently a clinical administrator on an adolescent inpatient unit in a private psychiatric hospital. She is an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Pace University and maintains a private outpatient practice. She is also the creator of www.itsatweenslife.com, a forum for family and friends.