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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Spare me the sympathy

Not long after Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended, I heard someone express sympathy for him.

“I feel sorry for him,” this person said. “If it wasn’t for his older brother, he wouldn’t be in this mess.”

I thought this was an isolated sentiment, but no: I keep running into people who feel sorry for Dzhokhar, though they’re always quick to add that there’s no excuse for what he allegedly did, and that he should suffer the consequences.

I didn’t know what to make of these comments, which I completely disagreed with.

I don’t feel at all sorry for Dzhokhar, and I don’t understand why anyone would. Nor do I buy the dominant narrative, that Dzhokhar was a guileless bystander until his mean older brother led him astray. But even if I did accept this, I doubt I would sympathize with Dzhokhar. In fact, I might find him even more repugnant than I already do.

To me, there’s nothing sympathetic about someone who lacks strength of character and a functioning moral compass. If your mean old brother can convince you to plant bombs at a marathon, you probably weren’t a very good person to begin with.

In a piece on the online magazine Slate, the writer Hanna Rosin tries to understand why anyone would sympathize with Dzhokhar. She attributes the phenomenon mainly to women — teenage girls who inexplicably harbor crushes on killers (alleged Aurora, Colo., shooter James Holmes also has his fans) and mothers, often with sons of their own.

“Some just seem anguished by the vision of that ‘poor kid’ alone in the boat by himself, bleeding for all those hours,” Rosin writes. “All of this sympathy stems of course from the story line that coalesced early: a hapless genial pothead being coerced into killing by his sadistic older brother.

“As with such story lines, 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 [expletive] 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 that he is about to blow up.”

After Dzhokhar was arrested, my father and I discussed our lack of patience with the theory that Dzhokhar’s older brother coerced him into doing something he did not want to do.

“I don’t think you’d be able to talk your sisters into doing anything like that,” my father said.

I agreed. My sister Rebecca is generally easy to boss around — if I tell her to make me a sandwich or get me a drink, she usually will — but she possesses a moral compass and strength of character and would never commit a heinous crime, even if I asked her. My younger sister Lesley has always resisted my efforts to get her to fetch me food or run little errands for me, and she has both a moral compass and a strong character.

I’ve also enjoyed reading the comments of Dzhokar’s former high school classmates and college classmates, who emphasize how normal and nice he seemed. Now, I don’t know Dzhokhar. Perhaps he was once a really swell fellow and recently took a turn for the worse. But I’m skeptical.

Ever since high school, I’ve wondered whether people know what the word nice actually means. Niceness is about more than being sociable at parties and cracking funny jokes. It’s about actively being a decent person. If you thought Dzhokhar seemed nice because he played intramural soccer and listened to hip-hop, you might want to rethink your working definition of the word nice.

“I know he’s a bad guy, but for me, he’s still a good guy,” one of Dzhokhar’s dumb friends told the Los Angeles Times. Uh, no. Dzhohkar, if he’s guilty of the crimes he’s suspected of, is not a good guy. And you might not be such a good guy, either, if that’s what you think.

Last week, three of Dzhokhar’s buddies were arrested and charged with trying to help him after learning of his status as the most wanted man in America. I tried to imagine how my college roommate would have reacted had she learned that I was a suspected terrorist. Would she dispose of evidence and lie to the police? No, she would not. Because she’s a decent human being! A nice person, if you will.

Of course, none of this is rocket science.

Most people know that helping terrorists is wrong, and that being a terrorist is even worse. We can bend over backward trying to understand what made the Tsarnaev brothers do what they allegedly did, and why Dzhokhar’s dumb pals tried to help him, but the more I learn about them, the only thing I find remotely remarkable about them is the vastness of their stupidity, their shallowness and their callow disregard for all other people. From what I can tell, the brothers’ Uncle Ruslan was pretty much on the mark when he described them as losers. None of this “Dzhokhar is really nice” nonsense from him.

Unfortunately, one of the things we’ve learned from the Boston Marathon bombing is that you don’t have to be an evil criminal genius to cause a huge amount of suffering and damage. Shallow, pathetic losers, it turns out, can inflict a lot of harm. And what should be clear to everyone is that nobody involved in this terrible crime should ever be mistaken for a nice person again.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at

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