Virtual Voices
Rolling Stone

What shaped Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s worldview

Terrorism

In 1973, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show released a hit single in which those good ol’ rockers raucously wondered why they couldn’t grab the gold ring of pop-culture—getting on “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” Whatever his woes, accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (“Jahar” to his friends) can’t complain about that: His dreamy Dylan-esque portrait graces the cover of the once-cool mag, certain to add new legions of “blue-eyed teenage groupies” [warning: the linked article contains vulgar language] proclaiming his innocence on Twitter.

The cover photo stirred up a justifiable firestorm, and the article’s subhead is sappy: “He was a charming kid with a bright future. But no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” Still, once past the shameless ploys for attention, the article by Janet Reitman is worth reading. Not so much for the insight it offers into Tsarnaev (who remains a mystery), but for what it reveals about the rarified culture that helped shape him.

Tsarnaev was 8 when his family emigrated from Kyrgyzstan to Cambridge, Mass. They couldn’t have picked a more congenial spot: the beating heart of “progressive” America, where all cultures are celebrated, often at the expense of American culture. By all accounts good-natured and apolitical in high school, Tsarnaev was surrounded by teachers and peers with an unquestioned, lazy contempt for American tradition and values. He bonded with his history teacher, Larry Aaronson, a longtime friend of the late Howard Zinn (whose People’s History of the United States has been characterized as more left-wing agitprop than history). Aaronson was charmed. As he told Reitman, “This was the quintessential kid from the war zone [i.e., Chechnya, which was not Tsarnaev’s homeland], who made total use of everything we offer so that he could remake his life.”

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One thing Cambridge failed to offer was a clear-eyed defense of Western values. After Tsarnaev’s parents broke up and his brother Tamerlan, whom he idolized, drifted into radical Islam, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began to express anti-Western sentiments. But what else is new? “In terms of politics,” observed one of his high-school friends in the article, “I’d say he’s just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge.” During his unhappy college years, Tsarnaev fed on conspiracy theories and tweeted that 9/11 was an inside job—not an uncommon sentiment, according to his high school wrestling coach Peter Payack, who also teaches college-level composition. Many of Pavack’s students, especially the foreign-born, believe the American government orchestrated 9/11.

“The problem with this demographic,” Aaronson said in the article, “is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories. … They’re blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any ‘factoids’ that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies.” The adult world, he added, dismisses these kids at their peril. Yet Aaronson seems bewildered by his former student. “It’s hard to understand how there could be such disassociation in that child,” he told Reitman, going on to express amazement, in speech mined with f-bombs, that Tsarnaev and his brother had enough explosives in their apartment to blow up his entire city block.

Close readers may spot some disassociation in Aaronson himself, and “that child’s” peers, who casually dissed their native land with him while getting high. Even now they want to soften his image, expressing relief at the rumor that Tsarnaev cried for two days after he woke up in the hospital. Jeremiah (17:9) could have told them a thing or two about the human heart: deceptive above all, and desperately wicked, and beyond understanding. And it’s not unknown for the devil to look like an angel.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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