Monday, April 29, 2013

Celebrity Terrorists

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Just by reading those names, you likely draw an instantaneous connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

The name Adam Lanza probably immediately links your thoughts to the Newtown shootings.

No doubt Timothy McVeigh rapidly pulls your mind back to the Oklahoma City bombing.

When even the simplest, most harmless criminal event occurs, we instantly want to know the identity of the criminal so that s/he can be brought to justice. It follows, then, that when an event occurs that kills, injures and shocks our conscience on a mass-scale, we want to find, punish and often understand the reasons of those responsible. So we pursue the perpetrators with the full extent of our resources, waiting with baited breath to discover their identities.

But what happens once we discover who they are?

Almost as soon as someone learned the identity of the Newtown shooter, his photograph hit the Internet as well as print and TV news. Soon after, a hodgepodge of information about him and his mother began pouring forth. Suddenly, his hauntingly angry image and persona were everywhere.

Somewhat similarly, once investigators gathered enough information the FBI released the names and photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, instantly beaming them onto our screens—and into our minds. Though at the time this was done as a means of enlisting the public’s help in finding the suspects, images and profiles of the two brothers have continued to be directed at us every day since the older brother died and the younger brother was captured.

The result of the constant stream of information: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, and others of their ilk are people as easily recognized and remembered as Rihanna, A-Rod or Anderson Cooper.

A Google search for "Tsarnaev" reveals over 20 million results.
Through the citing of their names and images in dozens of articles, videos and social media outlets, these terrorists were lifted from absolute obscurity into the national spotlight. In spite of—and alarmingly because of—their heinous crimes, they now enjoy a peculiar celebrity status. I do not mean to suggest that we enjoy their work or celebrate their accomplishments like we do with movie and music stars, sports celebrities or other popular personalities. Dzhokar Tsarnaev is not getting a book deal. But we remember these murderers and terrorists with the same ease as we call to mind Justin Timberlake’s latest song and give them nearly as much, if not sometimes more, attention in our media than we give to our cultural icons. (Whether we should give our cultural icons so much attention is another, separate issue.)

By repeatedly recalling these monsters’ names, we ensure that their names will live on long after the collective whole forgets the names of their victims. That is, if the media that hammers the perpetrators’ names into our minds bothers to mention the names of the victims with any kind of frequency—which it doesn’t.

On one hand, the names of these terrorists serve as symbols of hatred, instability and inhumanity. They are exemplars of how not to behave. Their names will be remembered by most (but likely not all, as one man’s terrorist can be another’s hero) with anger and abhorrence. In that way, they join the list of symbols like Adolf Hitler, the name arguably most synonymous with the epitome of pure evil, and it can be argued that they should be remembered for this reason.

But on the other hand, when symbols like Hitler and Osama bin Laden (not to mention Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, etc.) already exist, there seems to be little utility in turning more names into symbols. This is especially true of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers who, aside from having the distinction of being the first domestically bred, technically foreign bombers to attack civilians on US soil (unlike the Oklahoma City bomber), are not much different from other young terrorists who have deployed bombs or exploded themselves in terrorist attacks overseas.

Intelligence experts should analyze the Boston Marathon bombers’ backgrounds. Psychologists and other experts should use the Newtown shooter as an example for a case study (if he serves as a proper subject—I do not know enough about the discipline to comment). But we, the general public, do not need to remember these terrorists’ names to remember what they did or to learn of warning signs to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

To be clear, I am not advocating that the identities of these attackers should not be released. The public will always be curious, and in events like this has a right to know who threatened its safety. But once we find out who these people are, we don’t need their names thrown at us on repeat, until we have no choice but to remember them whether we want to or not. They and their names should fade away into the same oblivion into which they cast their souls the moment they chose to harm others.

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