WASHINGTON — It’s not all that surprising that the suspected Boston bombers, particularly younger brother Dzhokhar, have already inspired passionate crushes in girls. (There is a Tumblr called Free Jahar, as his would-be girlfriends call him, anchored by a photo of him kicking back in his Timberlands.) As Rachel Monroe wrote last year in her excellent essay for the Awl, The Killer Crush, extravagant murderers like James Holmes (the Aurora, Colo., shooter) and the Columbine boys tend to bring on alarming fevers of admiration from teenagers, and maybe some of them grow up to be the women who marry the guys in prison. (Hybristophilia is the technical term for getting turned on by high-profile criminals.)
The fan-girl fantasies involve an injured Dzhokhar showing up at your house and lots of Florence Nightingale-like ministrations (before they get porny, of course). You can almost imagine them as one of the "[heart] Let me take care of you [heart]" series of videos where women with soothing voices bring out the warm cloths. Here is a scene from one posted on the "Free Jahar" site:
[Dzhokhar] sounded much more terrified than you could have possibly been. "Are you okay?" You begged him to tell you he was fine, nobody really knew. "I’m hit, in the leg, but I — wait what? You’re asking if I’m okay?" He was surprised, but calmer now. "I know you didn’t do it, and even if you did, I know you aren’t harmful." He sighed with your words, he felt safe for the first time since he saw his face on the television.
But what stands out in the ardour for Dzhokhar is a deep maternal strain. Given what the man is accused of doing — killing an eight-year-old, among others, and helping to set off bombs that were loaded to maim — how do you explain that?
In the past week and a half I have not been to a school pickup, birthday, book party, or dinner where one of my mom friends has not said some version of "I feel sorry for that poor kid." This group includes mothers of infants and grandmothers and generally pretty reasonable intelligent types, including one who is an expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups.
Many of them mention that ubiquitous photo of Dzhokhar with his hair tousled and too few hairs on his chin to shave. Some bring up the prom photo with the red carnation or the goofy video of him wrestling with his friends. Some mention the "I love you, bro" tweets from his many friends. Some just seem anguished by the vision of that "poor kid" alone in the boat by himself, bleeding for all those hours. All of this sympathy stems of course from the storyline that coalesced early: a hapless genial pothead being coerced into killing by his sadistic older brother. As with such storylines, all evidence to the contrary gets suppressed.
Probably the correct moral response to this misplaced maternal sympathy is the one a Slate colleague had, which is to say: "People, please. Cut that... out. He’s an adult and a mass-murderer." There is evidence that he was not just a pot smoker but a dealer, and also like his brother, he was a fan of jihad. Also the photos of him at the actual bombing site are not so heartwarming, as they show him surveying the crowd he is about to blow up. After all, I don’t recall any grown-ups I know feeling sorry for Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenage half of the D.C. sniper duo, or Dylan Klebold, the weak half of the Columbine killers.
Maybe the lesson is that just like teenage ardour, unleashed maternal sympathy is a powerful force that can land in strange places. Maybe if we had learned more about the eight-year-old who got killed in the bombings it would have found a more appropriate target. Maybe (the most depressing answer) this all stems from the fact that Dzhokhar is cute.
Or maybe (the most hopeful answer) the maternal sympathy will help us get to a more sophisticated understanding of homegrown terrorists. With every one that comes our way — the Lackawanna Six, the Portland Seven, the Virginia Jihad Network — we search for the day they went overseas, traveled to a mosque in Egypt or Yemen or Chechnya, and got radicalized.
But the truth is that their time in the U.S. almost always plays a big part in their transformation. They try to assimilate and either succeed all too well and become disgusted with themselves or are stymied. (Older brother Tamerlan’s inability to continue to box in the top national competition because he wasn’t a citizen after a rule change barring legal residents — in other words, to become more American — seems to have narrowed his options and radicalized him, for example.)
Maybe the mothers drawn to Dzhokhar don’t want to bring him home and lay a warm cloth on his brow. But they are struggling in some way not to disown him. And that will in the end help us better understand people like him and what forms them. And if that’s not true, then they should just cut it out.
Hanna Rosin is the author of The End of Men, a co-founder of Slate’s DoubleX and a senior editor at the Atlantic.