The Boston Attacks: Learning to Regret

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL: He looked just like a young Bob Dylan, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — handsome as sin and a little lost, with the same dark angelic ringlets, same soulful eyes. All the networks kept showing the photo Friday, right next to one of a boat parked in a suburban yard. Then, they'd show the scene around it, at night now, the darkness broken up with flashing lights, a gazillion trucks, and men with body armor and machine guns. And beyond them, an angry nation also prepared, maybe eager, to kill.

They'd tracked him down because the owner of the house and boat had noticed blood somewhere, on the side of the shed or on the boat which had a ripped tarp. So we also knew he was wounded. And while the thing played out, and the whole sleepless night afterward, I kept wondering what that 19-year-old baby was thinking as he lay inside, bleeding and cornered, his brother already dead. Probably just, “What the fuck. What the fuck.” Whatever he'd imagined, toting his backpack to the race, it couldn't have been that. “What the fuck. What the fuck.”

Maybe none of it had even seemed real until then. Just a game he was playing with his older brother. There are so many reality shows after all, which are all halfway rigged. And how many of us — let's be honest — when we're older, look back at what we've done in our teens and 20s and wonder ourselves, “What the fuck was I thinking? How did I dare?” Sometimes what we did was monstrous. Sometimes insanely, dangerously good. And in either case, we're lucky we survived because it wasn't our final trajectory.

To understand and try to imagine justice, we have to remember that almost all of us are capable of evil, without it being particularly pure. We have a strong desire to wound and maim. We exonerate ourselves. When I read the David Remnick piece in the New Yorker identifying “the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men,” I thought you could substitute plenty of other things for “young men.”

All those straights in France furiously queer-bashing because they're losing their exclusive right to marriage. Those men in the US and India justifying rape as masculine power erodes. For a while in Cuba, women who had been curdling for ages got their kicks denouncing their nieces and nephews and kids to the cops who were rooting out queers. It's how Reinaldo Arenas ended up in jail on one occasion. Like others I know. But one mother, at least, lived to regret her own role in the jailing and abuse of her daughter.

Even a couple of stalwarts of the Westboro Baptist Church have seen the light. Just a couple of months ago, the smiling Megan Phelps-Roper, 27, and her sister, Grace, very publicly parted ways with their grandfather's church in Topeka, Kansas after spending their whole lives declaring, “God hates fags.” And even though their efforts probably killed more people than Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, maimed thousands more, though less visibly, encouraging self-loathing and suicides, rampant vitriol, gay-bashings, and the ignorance and stigma that spread HIV, there they are in polite society, getting kudos instead of blows.

And in case you think you're immune yourself, we Americans after September 11 became complicit in a national program of torture, turning our backs on Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and all the black op sites. People died, or were destroyed and maimed, and we didn't do a thing. Maybe because we thought we had good reason. Everybody always does.

So far, nobody seems to regret it much. The Obama administration is as pleased as anybody to sweep torture under the rug. Maybe in the future they'll repent. Just recently, years after he added more fuel to the anti-gay fire, Bill Clinton declared that signing the Defense of Marriage Act was a big fucking mistake, not going so far as to admit he has blood on his hands, too, like the Phelps spawn.

This is why I was glad we didn't kill that 19-year-old cowering in a boat after his own monstrous act, even if I was glad it was over. At least his scene. He'll have the future to think it over as the drama goes on without him, as it surely will. By the time he was caught, that eruption of violence engineered by two brothers had already been transformed by the likes of Fox News and CNN into dreadful fantasies of another Al Qaeda attack, or failing that, a kind of uprising by shadowy dark figures against the white American majority. And after accumulating more arms and BBs, black powder and pressure cookers, Tsarnaev's role will be filled by more deluded young men with names as likely to be Timothy or James as Dzhokhar.

Follow Kelly Jean Cogswell on Twitter @kellyatlarge.