Empathy, explanations and Excuses

On the final day of the week the Boston Marathon was bombed, the indie musician and performance artist Amanda Palmer wrote an appalling and almost universally denounced blog post that she odiously entitled  “A Poem for Dzhokhar.” While Palmer and a small coterie of supporters have talked themselves into believing that this supposed poem represents  empathy,  what it actually embodies is the opposite, a complete lack thereof.

True empathy must proceed from understanding, which means that in order for Amanda Palmer to offer empathy to Dzhokar Tsarnaev she needs to comprehend what for every civilized person is incomprehensible, namely why he would plant a bomb designed to kill and maim, stick around to watch the damage he had inflicted, and then tweet out that very evening “’god hates dead people?’ Or victims of tragedies? Lol those people are cooked.”

Tweets posted by Dzhokar Tsarnaev on the evening after the bombing

Because there can be no response to these questions — and even Amanda Palmer, on some level, recognizes this — she neither asks nor attempts to answer them. Rather she and her poem ignore the murders and maimings committed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What she calls empathy is merely an apologia for horrific violence, and by giving voice to it, she  denies empathy to everyone who is truly suffering from the actions of her poem’s subject.

Even the website Gawker grasps that before the empathizing can begin, an element of understanding is a precondition. On Saturday It asked its readers “Did Tamerlan Tsarnaev Pressure His Younger Brother Into Terrorism?” thus laying the groundwork for them to be able to share feelings of empathy for at least one of the killers.

But as it had to be, the understanding that emerged was by its very nature, be a twisted one. Pleas were made on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s behalf because he’s only 19 as if it’s normal for 19 year olds to think murdering and maiming is okay. Another explanation proffered was that the immigrant family structure requires deference to elders even when they happen to be aspiring terrorist bombers. And then of course there was the all-purpose answer that vacuous America, which makes it so hard to assimilate, must  have contributed to a feeling of aloneness that allowed this to happen.

The arguments and sentiments set out by Gawker readers are crude, but essentially they are the same as those expressed, albeit in more high brow fashion, by the New Yorker editor David Remnick in  “The Brothers Tsarnaev,”  (the innapropriate title has since been changed to “The Culprits”).  In the conclusion to his article, he writes:

The Tsarnaev family had been battered by history before—by empire and the strife of displacement, by exile and emigration. Asylum in a bright new land proved little comfort. When Anzor fell sick, a few years ago, he resolved to return to the Caucasus; he could not imagine dying in America. He had travelled halfway around the world from the harrowed land of his ancestors, but something had drawn him back. The American dream wasn’t for everyone. What they could not anticipate was the abysmal fate of their sons, lives destroyed in a terror of their own making. The digital era allows no asylum from extremism, let alone from the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men. A decade in America already, I want out.

Published last  Saturday, Remnick’s article is selective in both the information available at the time that it overlooks and in the truisms it fails to question. The last paragraph is a perfect example of how thin the line between explaining and excusing terrorism so often is.

Consider for example what a difference it would make if his article ended Lol those people are cooked instead of A decade in America already, I want out.

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