How do we feel about the younger brother?

Published 9:36 am Friday, May 17, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

I was chatting with students, getting ready to distribute the final exam in my introduction to literature class when the conversation turned in an unexpected direction.

Instead of the exam, students started talking about the Boston Marathon bombers. In particular, they were wondering about the younger brother, Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Why did he do it? What’s wrong with him? But they also wondered how we as individuals could or should feel about him: Hatred? Pity? Empathy? Befuddlement?

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As Dzokhar recovers in that prison hospital room from his wounds from the gunfight with police and his suicide attempt, some basic facts became part of our discussion. He’s 19 years old. He was a first year college student (I assume past tense because he’s probably been expelled at this point). He had a complicated relationship to his faith community and their beliefs, sometimes taking Islam and the Koran seriously, sometimes ignoring it all. In those details, he was similar to nearly every student in my classroom.

This young man also had a domineering brother and fundamentalist mother, who hounded and nagged him. They exerted an influence over him that went beyond what I consider healthy, beyond what most of us in that classroom considered normal. Is this the way it always is when a family member in a position of power over others becomes a fundamentalist believer? Is the way religious fundamentalism leads to fanaticism and the manipulation of others the same regardless of which book gets read?

The question for the students and me focused on those personal elements in Dzokhar’s life, those little details that seemed overshadowed by the bigger legal issues of violent intent and actions. None of us talked about absolving him or letting him off the hook for the terrible things that he helped make possible. But we did ask questions: How responsible is someone in Dzokhar’s position for the things that they do? Completely and unforgivably? No extenuating circumstances taken into account?

After the exam was over, graded and the students were on their way to summer jobs and internships, I continued to think about Dzokhar. I read that some politicians and terrorism “experts” wanted the young man to be labeled an enemy combatant and hauled off to Guantanamo. They wanted him interrogated, presumably using the “enhanced” techniques we developed during the Iraq War. They wanted him to be treated with cold, harsh, merciless justice.

What they didn’t want was for him to be read his Miranda rights, as though not reading them means they don’t exist. An interesting perspective … but fortunately for people accused of criminal acts in the United States, those rights don’t need to be read out loud for them to be in force (check the Constitution if you don’t believe me).

Things actually got this bad: commentators on Fox News wanted to start terrorism watch lists for all Muslims in America. Angry citizens and cowardly cemetery officials apparently even tried to block a burial for Dzokhar’s brother. What did they want to see happen to the body? Dragged through the streets behind a Humvee? Put on a display in the freezer at a local grocery store? I’m hoping that these fantasies of retribution and revenge fade quickly away, because those ideas are horrible, inhumane and unconstitutional in so many ways I can’t even count them all.

All of that sound and fury spewing from the TV set also obscured those simple, basic facts my students (and now I) couldn’t stop thinking about. Dzokhar is still so young. Yes, he clearly knows the difference between right and wrong, and he knew — he must have known — that he was trying to kill as many human beings as he could on the day of the Boston Marathon. But there is so much more about the world and human experience, probably even God, about which he knows little to nothing.

I do not think his youth becomes an excuse for slapping his hands and then setting him free, but that youthful inexperience also makes it difficult to treat him the same way we treat the ringleaders of the 9-11 attacks. Difficult, that is, if more people than just me believe in justice that is infused with mercy.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.