Something happens to an image that you stare at for too long, or a word that gets repeated too many times. It loses its original meaning. It becomes a reflection.
Much has already been made, and, in the weeks to come, much will continue to be made of the online presence that the younger accused Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left behind.
The New York Times, I think inanely, compares him to Holden Caulfield, but notes that his Twitter feed is often “distinctive only in its ordinariness — ordinariness that stands in such startling contrast to the horror of what happened last week in Boston.” The same piece notes that some of his tweets “suggest a more Holden Caulfield-like adolescent alienation: ‘some people are just misunderstood by the world thus the increase of suicide rates.’” Sometimes, Dzhokhar sounds downright sentimental (unless, of course, he is being ironic): “There are enough worms for all the birds stop killing each other for ‘em.”
In other words, there’s no method to it.
This is strange. We have something between a delusion and a hope that the people who do these things are somehow pricked out in advance.
The tweets seem haphazard and ordinary, but we stare and stare, squint and refocus and move closer and farther away, again in the hopes of wringing sense out of the picture, getting a clear glimpse of a larger intentional pattern. Where is the inevitability in this? We could have said these things.
“i neva had allergies on cats before i met my cousins cat, it was ugly and sick and i made fun of it, straight asshole jokes. Now im allergic…” he tweeted. “i still have mad love for cats tho.” He goes up and down in his feelings on cats: “living with this cat is straight torture, I’m not a cat person anymore”
The trouble is how aggressively unremarkable he seems: “thank god for women and sandwiches.”
His tweets seem so – ordinary. “i sneeze when i look at the sun, thats not weird #normal” He likes toast. He likes breakfast. ” i’m desperately waiting for you, summer!”
“life here in the U.S is ill without a doubt but life elsewhere is surreal”
There’s so little to analyze. “can’t fear a man who breathes the same air as you,” he tweets at one point. That’s the problem. This is the same Twitter air we’ve all been breathing for years now.
But do what he did – that’s different.
What separates him from us is not some obvious trait, some visible deformity, that we could have noticed and averted. It’s his horrible action. The second someone places a bomb, he crossed a bridge that separates him forever from the rest of humanity, the people who tweet about breakfast and girls and how much they enjoy sleeping.
We were hoping for a result more fundamental and astounding. For an “oh” moment. For the puzzle to resolve itself.
I have strange, mixed feelings about our tendency to dig through the writings of the people who do horrible things. I understand the need for clues. But it just feeds into the miserable equation that Hideous Act = Painstaking Attention.
One of the most primal needs in World 2.0, where we’re all living, is the need to Be Heard. Food, water, shelter, platform. He’s gotten the platform now. There’s even a #FreeJahar fandom, as Max Read notes on Gawker. “Like the “Holmies” and “Columbiners” devoted to the Aurora, Colo., and Columbine High School shooters, respectively,” Max Read writes at Gawker, “#FreeJahar has its roots in ‘fandom’ culture—those devoted communities of admirers, usually young women, that organize themselves on sites like Tumblr, exchanging photographs, fan art and writing, and expressions of ‘the feels,’ a near-undefinable flood of emotion and desire. (Rachel Monroe wrote a fantastic essay on the topic last year.) But it’s been combined with the conspiratorial rhetoric of sites like Infowars or Natural News, and informed by viral ‘issue’ campaigns like Kony 2012. The result is a strange hybrid phenomenon—part conspiracy-mongering, part gushing fandom, part political movement, part self-promotional tool, structured by social media, populated almost entirely by teenagers and stubbornly resistant to argument…”
“everyone becomes a story, strive not to be fake in yours,” Tsarnaev tweeted on May 16. He’s becoming a story. He’s disappeared into the story. All the other facts of his life — the cats, the sandwiches, the weed, the things that make him like us — turn out not to be the significant facts. Those are not his story. What happened in Boston swallows everything else.
Our frenzied response –- from the Tumblr fandom finding sympathy to the people going through the tweets with a fine-toothed comb looking for a sign, any sign –- has said more about us than it has about him.
The trick of fandom is to put more into something than it ever originally contained. Take the bland toast point that is Justin Bieber, and it is possible to Read Into Him almost anything. What the text is doesn’t matter. It’s all about the adaptation. People who spend their days creating fanworks are using preexisting texts and characters and settings and even real people to tell their own stories. It’s like playing with dolls. The stuffed dragon becomes a beautiful princess; the tea table is a volcano, all to meet the needs of the tale. Was he too “normal” in ways we recognize to do something this hideous? Are hideous acts the special province of people who could not possible pass among us on Twitter, unnoticed?
What story are we telling with this Dzhokhar fixation?
A&E hosts a documentary series called “The Killer Speaks,” where the viewer is presented with a puzzling crime and the killer gets interviewed. The tantalizing premise of the series is that you are going to finally get to hear the Why at the heart of all this. But you don’t. You hear what the Expert Criminologist thinks. You hear from the killer, sure. But what he tells you isn’t Why. It’s How. It’s the disjointed things he happened to be thinking at the time. It’s not the Why you want. You want an explanation for why something horrible could happen. Well, he says, he had a rough childhood. But many people have rough childhoods and go on to lead productive lives. So many people tweet about both Islam and cats and sandwiches — and nothing horrible happens. At a certain point, there aren’t answers. There are only excuses.
So we pour ours in.
When you stare into anything long enough, it begins to look like you.