Tag Archives: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

When Do Children Stop Being Sweet and Cute?

Williamson Children

Babies are born—every day, everywhere—full of promise.

My mother adored her babies—the five who survived and the three she lost before carrying them to term.  She showed her infants off as we cooed and laughed, and everyone told her how beautiful we were.

Somewhere in early childhood, though, children cease to be adorable, perhaps around the time they start to lose their teeth and become a little gangly, a little pudgy, a little mussed with the sweatiness of summer and outdoor play.  And as they hit adolescence, they become even less lovable, even to their own parents, who struggle to remember their cute children when they become pimply, moody teens who test the limits.

But my mother adored us even when she didn’t quite know what to do with us—a mother who was 31 when her first child became a teenager, 36 when her first child left for college.  She loved all of us fiercely even when two of my brothers became addicted to drugs in their 40s and when she lost a son to an overdose when he was 47.

My mother believed that somewhere inside that homeless, spiraling addict was the baby with the blonde curls that she kept in an envelope when he got his first haircut, the little clown who made her laugh, the teenage boy who played the tuba—the one whose band serenaded him from the parking lot of the hospital when he had his appendix out.  Somewhere inside the homeless son she hardly recognized on the day he died in her guest bedroom was the baby, the child who had been born full of promise.

She asked my sister and me again and again before she had a stroke that rendered her speech mostly unintelligible, “Where did I go wrong?”  In her last conversation with my other brother, at a time when he was clean and we knew where he was, she managed to get out the words, “Be good.”

But when things go terribly wrong and those babies born full of promise grow up to commit acts too terrible to imagine, our society wants to blot out any detail of a life that might suggest goodness once blossomed somewhere inside.  In the wake of the controversy over the portrayal of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the recent issue of Rolling Stone, I’ve watched contemplatively as the media once again plays to the two extremes and, in the process, boosts the sagging sales of printed news and magazines.

Yesterday I finally got around to reading Janet Reitman’s article insideRolling Stone and found it to be well-written, balanced—a good piece of investigative journalism.  The award-winning writer’s article has been all but forgotten in the controversy surrounding the cover photo, a photo that theNew York Times, interestingly, used on its cover more than two months ago to absolutely no controversy.

Why?  The more distance we have from such a horrific event, the more we want simple explanations for the complexities that foster human behavior.

We want our heroes to be full of goodness and light when they die heroic deaths.  If a policeman who is far from perfect dies in the line of duty, will we hear that she was often heard using racial epithets?  Doubtful.  If a fire fighter is killed inside a burning house after he passes a baby out a window to a colleague, will we hear that he beat his own children?  Probably not.

And we want our villains to be devoid of virtue, filled with only hatred and darkness.  Only by seeing them as incarnate evil can we stifle the fear that we could be the next victim of senseless violence.  Our brains seem incapable of understanding what a mother understands about her child—that somewhere, deep inside the unrecognizable person, is her lost child.  Only by painting our villains in silhouettes of beasts can we comprehend the incomprehensible.

Each time the unspeakable happens, I sit in front of the television screen and cry.  In the days after 9/11, my daughter, who was 15 at the time and struggling to understand what I couldn’t fathom at the age of 45, finally said to me, “Mom!  You can’t keep watching that over and over again.  You’ve got to turn it off, or you’ll never stop crying.”

When the pictures of the terrorists emerged, I never gave one single thought to the fact that each was once a baby—full of promise to a mother who loved him.  It is only as the perpetrators have become American citizens who seem to get younger and younger that I’ve looked at them and asked the question my mother asked, “What did we do wrong?”

We will never be able to completely prevent the horror of violence, to ensure that such a thing will never happen again.  But what if we did our best as a society to eliminate the conditions that give rise to insanity?  What if, instead of dissecting the dead villains afterward, we began to dissect a society that is much in need of healthy change—to excise the unhealthy tissue when we can do so without destroying the community we’ve worked for more than 200 years to build?

I know that life isn’t always baby smiles and colorful flowers.  But to grow a garden, we must first work together to plant the seeds and tend the saplings.

I’m exhausted by endless stories that insist on pure evil.  Tell me your stories of innocent babies who blossom into complex human beings.

Grateful for an Older Sibling?

Marcella and Me

Like everyone, I’ve spent the week trying to wrap my mind around another senseless tragedy.  My heart a swirl of emotions, I went from incredulity to anger to fear to sadness for the victims, especially for the Richards family—innocents who’ll bear the physical and emotional scars of that single moment in time for the rest of their lives.

But as someone blessed to have an older sibling who has looked out for me from the moment I slipped into the world, I couldn’t help being sad all over again when I read the description of the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloodied and broken, hiding in a boat that would never carry him to calmer seas.

Yes, he’s an adult—barely.  Yes, he is the one who made the reckless decision to join his older brother’s descent into madness and hatred.  But as someone who spent my childhood following my sister everywhere she would allow me to go and listening to her as she talked about what it was like to be the first of my grandparents’ 57 grandchildren to go to college, I can’t help feeling sorry for someone whose life went so terribly wrong because he followed in his brother’s footsteps.

And what of Tamerlan Tsarnaev?  I can’t find it in me to understand him enough to feel sad for him.  It makes me angry that he followed the logic of a religious extremism that says alcohol is forbidden but that mass murder is encouraged.  How can any human being with a brain possibly accept such tenets of faith? It makes me furious that he lured his younger sibling, who worshipped him, into a fanaticism that urges its adherents to jihad.

This morning I read an article in the Boston Globe that gave a glimpse into the lives of these two young men.  And as always in these tragedies, we’re left with more questions than answers.  How do we find and help such angry young people before they are helped by terrorists who feed on their rage and vulnerability?

How do we honor all faiths but expose extremists who commit atrocities in the name of God?  How do we live in religious freedom but restrict the rights of fanatics who believe their faith justifies taking away the lives and freedoms of others?

I don’t know.  But I do know that today I am especially grateful for an older sibling who has always, always taken care of me and wrapped me in love.  And while I stopped following in her footsteps long ago—but well after I was 19—I’m thankful that if I did follow her, she would never have steered me wrong.

Here’s to all the big sisters and big brothers in the world who are like my sister Marcella.

Tell me your stories of gratitude to the siblings who came before you.