Jahar – like a Rolling Stone

Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone, July 2013

It seems to me that the ‘portrait’ of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone is actually quite appropriate. If you bother to read the article, the picture that friends and acquaintances paint is very close to the image on the front of the magazine.

I wonder how many of the vociferously complaining patriots have looked inside to actually read the article?

I also think that Rolling Stone’s justification for the story and for the cover image is sound.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS

The first par of this apologia is just boilerplate. No American publication could cover this event without first expressing sympathy for the victims. Perhaps the mistake the editors made was thinking that such a statement would be enough. But, at the end of the day, trying to satisfy or mollify the redneck patriotic sentiment of most whitebread Americans is a thankless, if not hopeless, task.
I also can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if Rolling Stone were to put Trayvon Martin on the cover. He’s another young American male who fell foul of the system. He ended up dead, shot in the heart by a part-time security guard who has recently been acquitted of criminal responsibility for Martin’s death.

The right stuff

Janet Reitman’s portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is comprehensive and well-written. Just about everyone she’s talked to for the story — Tsarnaev’s friends and his high school wrestling coach — all express their shock and disbelief that the quiet, dope-smoking young American they knew could be the same Jahar who appears in this series of images, emerging bloody and bowed after his capture by heavily-armed Boston police and FBI agents.
It is also relevant to have a discussion about the moral and artistic merit of these photos, taken by a police ‘tactical photographer’. This one, in particular, makes Jahar look like a wounded 21st century Jesus figure.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the moment of capture by Boston police

By all accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an all-American, high school sweetheart and mother’s favourite son. His Chechen background, while obviously key to his overall personality, seems to recede in the background in Reitman’s piece. The picture we get from listening to Jahar’s many friends talking to Reitman is that he was almost too good to be true.
“He was smooth as fuck,” says his friend Alyssa, who is a year younger than Jahar. Girls went a little crazy over him – though to Jahar’s credit, his friends say, even when he had crushes, he never exploited them. “He’d always be like, ‘Chill, chill, let’s just hang out,'” says Sam, recalling Jahar’s almost physical aversion to any kind of attention. “He was just really humble – that’s the best way to describe him.”

Cara, a vivacious, pretty blonde whom some believe Jahar had a secret crush on, insists they were just friends. “He was so sweet. He was too sweet, you know?” she says sadly. The two had driver’s ed together, which led to lots of time getting high and hanging out. Jahar, she says, had a talent for moving between social groups and always seemed able to empathize with just about anyone’s problems. “He is a golden person, really just a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone,” she says. “It’s hard to really explain Jahar. He was a Cambridge kid.”

What’s not to like about this boy? the cover image seems totally appropriate. It screams out the contradictions in this young man’s life that saw him transform from the quintessential nice kid into someone capable of a cold-blooded act of terrorism.

The Wrong Stuff

It seems many Americans don’t want to know the truth about Jahar Tsarnaev and the hundreds of thousands of kids like him in towns and cities across America. If Jahar can turn on the society that he made his own and that made him welcome as a refugee and a citizen, then what’s to stop hundreds more from doing the same?
It’s much better, it seems, to demonise Dzhokhar Tsarnaev through the lens of the terror frame and to imagine him as a ‘Chechen’ with an ideological chip on his shoulder and as holding the devout (read ‘exrtremist’) views of his faith.
But that is not what Janet Reitman found. She reports that others in Jahar’s circle of friends had converted to Islam and that this was not seen as anything out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, for instance, one of their mutual friends decided to convert to Islam, which some, like Cara, thought was really cool, and others, like Jackson, met with a shrug. “But that’s the kind of high school we went to,” Jackson says. “It’s the type of thing where someone could say, ‘I converted to Islam,’ and you’re like, ‘OK, cool.'” And in fact, a number of kids they knew did convert, he adds. “It was kind of like a thing for a while.”

Yep, strange as it may seems to some of us, but this is a ‘thing’ now. When I was in high school I went to a Christian fellowship and I remember a tearful ‘coming to Jesus’ in the backseat of a friend’s car. I even got my own Bible. A few weeks later it was all over and I was back to being a fairly insistent non-believer. The only reason I went to fellowship was to get out of the house on a Friday night with money in my pocket, go into the Wagon Wheels hotel for an underage schooner and then try to pash one of the fellowship girls in the church graveyard.
I went on to become a level 7 aetheist and hardcore communist, but I never wanted to blow people up.
It seems that Tsarnaev expressed a certain amount of anti-American politics – such as not agreeing with its imperialist foreign policy – but that too, I would argue, is par for the course among that late teen age group. It is a time of rebellion, some of us never grow out of it, but most do.
What this episode really shows is that there’s no easy answers and that stereotyping is a foolish waste of time. But the reaction to the Rolling Stone piece is a little OTT. It is seen as being too sympathetic to the young man, but in tone and content it is not that different from a Boston Globe profile of the Tsarnaev brothers published in April 2013. There’s a fairly nice portrait of Jahar in that piece too.
Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

A disturbing coincidence

There’s another disturbing link in this case that is another piece of the Tsarnaev puzzle.
It seems that the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, is now being implicated in the September 2011 murder of a small-time Boston drug dealer and two others.
That killing occurred on either the 11th or 12th of September and the link to ‘9/11’ is now being theorised as deliberate.
Conveniently, another Chechen, who lived in Boston and was a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is alleged to have confessed to police that he and Tamerlan were involved in the drug dealer deaths, though at the time neither was questioned.
Even more conveniently, the police who questioned Ibragim Todashev about Tamerlan, say he was shot and killed by them during a ‘disturbance’ and just at the point in an interrogation where he was going to confess to his and Tsarnaev’s involvement in the drug dealer killings.

Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent at his condo near Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida just after midnight on Wednesday.

He had allegedly turned violent as he was preparing to sign a written confession to his and Tsarnaevs involvement in the 2011 triple homicide, said authorities.

‘The agent, two Massachusetts State Police troopers, and other law enforcement personnel were interviewing an individual in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing investigation when a violent confrontation was initiated by the individual,’ the FBI said in a statement.

‘During the confrontation, the individual was killed.’

This is a more comfortable narrative for many Americans. It makes the point (true or not) that at least one of the Boston bombing perpetrators was already a crazy fucking terrorist two years before the marathon attacks.
That explains everything, doesn’t it?

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