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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.)

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