Joho the Blog » The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.


[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)

4 Responses to “The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy”

  1. Elsewhere, I commented that I’m waiting to learn if/how much mother “radicalized” both sons, “perhaps after [being charged with] shoplifting.” Some quick googling tells me her own rejection of her former Americanization occurred well before that event. But I’d still like to learn a lot more than I probably ever will about the “common narrative” and the real family dynamics.

  2. Since I am (also) a follower of the Buddha, I am thinking “compassion”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion#Buddhism

  3. Thanks David, I was disturbed by all the outrage at what I thought was an unremarkable photo of a troubled young man, but I had no words to explain my feeling. Your article summed them up. Fear and outrage have displaced rational discourse in our political mainstream.

  4. David: a fine article — and some revealing comments. There (and here above) you came close to capturing something I have thought about for years. Close… but not quite. The difference is important.

    On many occasions, I have expressed this to radio hosts, news editors, and public officials. They NEVER get it. I see it as distinct from what you (and the first 100 CNN comments I read) addressed. If you think, “Oh, yeah, same thing…” I’ve done a poor job of writing.

    Here’s the nub of our collective failure: even the most sympathetic comments (“We must understand what these young men did…”) eventually wander into describing the motivation as “evil.” No wonder we can’t understand terrorism — we neglect even to try!

    As soon as we invoke the word “evil,” we declare our intent NEVER to understand. It’s magical thinking, meant to distance us from acknowledging even the reality of the act. We might as well say “gnome-driven,” or “unicorn-inspired” as to say “evil.”

    To put it metaphorically, it’s our collective decision to grant the insanity defense without even hearing the evidence. (Although, don’t get me started on the uninformed use of “mentally disturbed” in a similar context. It can happen. But, not everyone with mental illness becomes violent, and not everyone who becomes violent has mental illness.)

    To put it more literally, invoking the word “evil” is society’s way of pretending only Satan could think such things. AND YET, all the while, society continues pushing MORE people into thinking such things. People we brand “terrorists” are one form of proof! Still, they’re only one manifestation.

    I could cite all the people who lost houses to bank fraud, or pensions to Wall Street fraud, or loved ones to medical fraud… that list is enormous. None of that suffering makes people “evil.” It may make them AWARE of evil, which is VERY different. If that awareness became sufficiently overwhelming, such people might do the same things terrorists do — kill people, blow things up — but they would not have become “terrorists.” Their goal would not be “terror.” Some observers might want to call it “revenge,” but a more relevant term might be “justice.”

    If you happen to be thinking of some political entity, or ethnic faction, you’re missing the point. Forget that for NOW. It’s not on topic. This topic is people who sense a severe lack of justice, and take action to replace it. Once you notice that INDIVIDUALS can arrive at violent conclusions, you may have a chance of understanding why GROUPS do. But, for the moment, STOP thinking about groups. Please. It’s important.

    If I’ve not already been sufficiently obtuse, or if you harbor any sense that I’m exaggerating the distinction, let me be even more direct.

    I can relate to this, which I’ve heard privately from several people over the years — people who are neither evil, nor mentally disturbed, in any way. I’ll paraphrase, in the first person.

    “I abide by the law because I respect the law, and try not to violate it. BUT, if I received a medical diagnosis giving me only months to live, I hope I’ll have the moral courage to seek out people responsible for outrageous assaults on the environment, and end their lives.

    I may not be able to do that. I couldn’t do it today. I don’t even know which people it would be. They may be far away, or not. They may be rich, or not. They may be political, or not. But, IFF I have no hope… they won’t either.

    If that were to happen, it won’t be evil; it’ll be good. If that were to happen, I won’t be mentally disturbed; I’ll be mentally at peace.”

    Recall any tale of extreme circumstance, especially where one party felt justice had been denied. What if that party ultimately chose a violent path to some perceived “justice”? Were they evil? Were they mentally disturbed?

    Until we consider that many perfectly sane, perfectly good people may be capable of extraordinary acts which do not conform to our own standards of behavior — until we grasp that we ourselves MAY be similarly capable under extreme circumstances, without evil or mental disorder — we do not, can not, and will not understand terrorism.

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