We believe that within the chaos caused by the Boston Marathon explosion, two young men were wrongfully accused of something they did not do, and one of them has lost his life before even getting the opportunity of a proper trial.
So begins the Change.org petition created by Anita Temisheva in support of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged “Suspect #2” in the Boston Marathon bombings and the rolling chaos that spilled into the streets of residential Boston later that week. As of writing this her petition has over 13,000 signatures. Most of those who put a reason do not cite clemency or mercy but instead a steadfast belief that the Tsarnaev brothers were set up.
On Twitter, the movement has manifested itself under the hashtag “#FreeJahar” and it’s gotten so much traction that at times that hashtag can be found trending world wide. I won’t cite individual tweets because I don’t believe reading them out of context would be useful to understanding their arguments. In many cases, the #FreeJahar supporters have their hands full with countless people sending vitriolic messages to them in response to their opinions and so meaningful dialogue has shut down. Instead, I will try to paraphrase their arguments.
First though, I think it’s important to distinguish these people from an entirely separate group of people who have been clumped together with them. The #FreeJahar movement does not appear to be linked to terrorist sympathizers, fanatics, or those active in the Jihadist movement (source). Instead, the movement consists of, as Spencer Ackerman puts it in his article for Wired magazine, “a mix of conspiracy theories, sympathy for Tsarnaev and skepticism of the official narrative surrounding the 19-year-old’s arrest.” In other words, most simply can’t believe that the person the FBI has identified would be capable of doing the things he’s accused of. Predictably, his parents are among those who think he has been wrongfully charged. His Mom has said “I am really, really, really telling you this is a set-up.” His father agrees. But that circle of disbelief has expanded past his circle of family and friends that knew him into a wider net, the internet. It’s a phenomenon we didn’t see during 9/11 and it demands an explanation.
The case against the Tsarnaev brothers looks pretty solid. At around 2:45 p.m. on April 15th video from surveillance cameras shows what appears to be one of the Tsarnaev brothers slipping off his backpack and leaving it on the ground. Several minutes later the bomb explodes and the man believed to be Tsarnaev can be seen casually walking away while panic engulfs the crowd. The following Friday a man is carjacked in Cambridge. The two men ask the man if he heard about the Boston explosion and then one of them says “I did that.” Later, in the firefight and manhunt that ensued, explosives similar to those used in the bombings are recovered by the police. Finally, when Dzhokhar woke up at the hospital he admitted his involvement in the bombing, citing religious motivations. Along with the very public nature of these actions, there is truckloads of physical evidence placing the two brothers at the scene of the crimes on Friday, and at least circumstantially, at the marathon itself. None of this matters of course to the supporters of the #FreeJahar campaign. Any piece of evidence used in support of their guilt is either dismissed as false or turned around and used as further support. Some go so far as to say that the brothers oftentimes harebrained schemes are proof positive that they were innocent until framed.
What interests me is not that there are people who believe the brothers were framed but why this particular instance of conspiracy thinking is so attractive (and judging by the prevalence of supporters it’s pretty attractive). First I want to talk about how information is disseminated in today’s world.
Twitter and Facebook, not online new sources, have replaced newspapers. It’s not only that we live in a time where information changes so fast that print media can’t keep up (I would argue it doesn’t have to but I’ll save it for another
article), but also the very ingestion of information has changed. In previous eras, information was made available in large chunks (such as in books, newspapers, or pamphlets) that were meant to be read in full before they could be fully understood. It’s how we are still taught to write essays in school: A thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and finally a conclusion. Those days are gone. We live in the age of 140 characters. If the information can’t be conveyed within the confines of those 140 characters, it’s not going to be widely read. Facebook is even worse. Ideas are reduced to a picture and a caption. The merits of a particular argument can’t be weighed because they aren’t even acknowledged. And like a bacteria, the antidote of real reporting and fact checking can’t keep up because the misinformation evolves so fast. It’s in this hazy, fact checking starved world that things like #FreeJahar thrive. Suddenly a picture really is worth a thousand words. Show the picture and the audience is left to their own devices to fill in the words, often times with their own preconceptions or expectations.
That’s the second catalyst for a conspiracy: we already had an idea of who would do this before it happened. The perpetrators of this crime were very different than what we expected them to be. Sure, they were Muslim but they were also white; they were assimilated Americans, both culturally and legally; they were young; they seemed normal. It’s a lot different than the guys we saw on 9/11, or the shoebomber, or 24, or Homeland, and they don’t look Iranian. Our expectations were thwarted and it makes us skeptical. We watch with the same uneasiness that an audience watches a magician walk into one box and emerge from another. That’s not right, our brains scream, that’s not how things are supposed to be. This, I think, is really the heart of the conspiracy. We are in disbelief that someone like US could do something like THAT. Dzhokhar could be one of our sons. Or one of our children’s classmates. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, “If I had a son, he would look like Dzhokhar.” and that’s heart breaking. I don’t blame people for feeling betrayed.
The brothers resemble mass murders much more closely than they do Islamic terrorists (and in America we define those two things very differently). If these boys hadn’t been Muslim then we probably wouldn’t have labeled them terrorists at all. After all, the Aurora shooter wasn’t viewed as a terrorists. Neither was Jared Loughner who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Arizona. The motive for the Aurora shooting remains vague but Jared Loughner was certainly motivated by political reasons. Senator Lindsay Graham never called for his Rights as an American Citizen be stripped from him in the wake of his massacre the way he suggested Dzhokhar’s be. So now we have a conflict. On the one hand we have typical American young men, going to parties, going to school, quoting Jay Z on twitter. On the other, they have been labeled terrorists by their government and placed in the category of radical Islamic extremists. I can forgive people for feeling a bit of disbelief at those disparate categories colliding like they did on April 15th.
What isn’t excusable to me is to ignore the lessons that this heinous act can teach us. Some people payed a high price for this lesson, I would say too high a price, but sticking our heads in the sand will not make up for it. As we get further into the 21st century and technology enables us to be increasingly interconnected with the rest of the world we are learning again and again that there aren’t any easy solutions. The problems we once thought were black and white are many shades of gray (I’ll refrain from making a 50 Shades of Grey joke, we’ve come too far). The Boston Marathon bombing is another example of the messiness of trying to attribute specific characteristics to predicting an act of violence. It can be frustrating to admit that we are largely clueless when it comes to anticipating attacks but keeping a realistic perspective is imperative. If we are looking only for one thing it’s far too easy for people who don’t fit that mold to slip through the cracks. In a way we are all #FreeJahar devotees. As we cast a weary eye towards the bearded man with a turban sitting three rows ahead of us, we missed the Tsarvaev brothers sitting next to us. If we even noticed them at all, we may have even said to ourselves: “No, not them. They look just like me.”