Thursday, July 18, 2013

Heroes, Villains and Rolling Stone

It might be that I'm from nowhere. I'll give you that. But if I am from somewhere, that place is Boston. Still, I'll admit, I'm having a lot of trouble with the furor over the upcoming Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. I've read TIME Magazines and Newsweeks (RIP) with Osama Bin Laden featured prominently. Is the issue more because it's a flattering picture and not dirty, bearded Saddam Hussein?

I read the arguments about not validating horrible acts with fame, although they're silly. Famously bad people get famous; you refuse to reward them by making sure they deal with the consequences of their famously bad acts.

I suspect it has more to do with the notion that Rolling Stone will feature a story, not about a cold-blooded killer, but about a confused kid that in way over his head. We're outraged by the sympathy - as if sympathy itself is finite and any sympathy given to "the bad guy" is sympathy taken from his innocent victims. I haven't read the story; I've not even read an account of anyone who's read the story. It may very well make Tsarnaev a victim alongside those people he hurt. I'm not sure what's wrong with that.

Not every victim is innocent. Not every terrorist is evil.

To be sure, there are plenty of innocent victims here. People were killed, maimed, injured, traumatized by the senseless, stupid actions of two disillusioned brothers. That's not up for debate. No matter how righteous our perceived cause or how serious our perceived indignities (and our causes and indignities are always perceived), violence is never the right choice. It just isn't. Ever.

But I'm troubled that our society so quickly condemns anyone willing to explore the depths of a complicated situation. We like simplicity. We like it a lot. But then again, simplicity is not real life (the same can be said for Trayvon and George).

We want to categorize people good and bad, usually so we can distinguish "us" from "them." We like the fantasy that some human beings are downright evil. It keeps us from facing the reality that, as humans, we're all capable, under the right circumstances, of all the evil any of us are capable of.

None of us should be defined by our actions. We can certainly be described by our actions, but that's a far cry from defining us that way. I've known people who grew up with absentee fathers who've really struggled with this distinction. When you've got a Dad incapable of anything good, it's tough to realize that this dispicability isn't genetic. They have to differentiate between the actions of their father (which are bad) and the person of their father (who is dad). The same applies to all our heroes and villains.

The homeless man with the golden voice, who made headlines, reunited with his family, and went on all the feel-good morning talk shows - he relapsed shortly thereafter, then again a few months later. He's got a job and a home and a future, but he's not perfect. He's a man chock full of good and bad; neither define him. They describe him.

Don't get me wrong, description is still important. People who have done a lot of stealing are likely not the best to hire as house-sitters. We must all live with the consequences of our actions. Those are real. I hope the Rolling Stone piece doesn't gloss over the tragedy that brought Tsarnaev to our attention. It would be unconscionable.

But actually exploring the forces in a person's life that lead them to evil (or to good) is interesting and valuable and far too rare in our world today.

It's way better than just guessing, which is how it normally works. We judge people based on gut instinct and any variety of subjective criteria. Howard Dean gets excited during a campaign speech, yells crazily, like Slim Pickins riding the bomb, and his political career is over. Anthony Weiner texts a picture of his junk to a woman who's not his wife and he becomes the next mayor of New York. Capricious.

We want to hate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He's done some bad stuff. The consequence of which is that his life ends at 19 years old, whether he's executed or not. Does that make him a tragic figure? I don't know, but I think it's fantastic that someone is trying to find out.

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