About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Slight are the outward signs of evil thought,
Within—within—'twas there the spirit wrought!
Love shows all changes—Hate, Ambition, Guile,
Betray no further than the bitter smile...
—Lord Byron, The Corsair
I’m sure by now you’ve seen him on the cover. He’s good-looking but not gorgeous. He’s sensitive and seductive. There are those who believe he’s the victim of a conspiracy, and then there are those who think he’s a monster. There are those who call him a freedom fighter, and those who call him just plain evil. To combat what he felt was the glorification of a terrorist, Massachusetts state policeman Sean Murphy just released photos this week from the night Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. In these, he looks dangerously depleted, bloodied, and barely conscious, a stark contrast to the brooding rock star image he used for his social media profile.
I. Isn’t it Byronic?
But I suspect that these new photos will only serve to bolster Tsarnaev’s fan base, who is accustomed to seeing cinematic antiheroes in just these types of situations. And that’s what Dzhokhar is, an antihero. To be a hero, even an antihero, is to fight against a perceived oppressor; to be a Neo against the Machines, an Assange against the Pentagon, a Snowden against the NSA. Like any proper antihero, Dzhokhar doesn’t seem to have perpetrated carnage simply for the sake of carnage, or just to “watch the world burn,” as Alfred describes The Joker in The Dark Knight. He claims to have acted on behalf of Muslims being oppressed the world over. He is alleged to have written “the U.S. is killing our innocent civilians” on the inside of the boat where he was finally captured. This is not a claim that is unique to him, of course; the view that Western foreign policy, particularly military policy, is the impetus for acts of terrorism is standard fare whether you watch Fox News or CNN.
Antiheroes have an inscrutable magnetism and an air of the romantic about them. The nineteenth century poet Lord Byron seems to have provided the template for our modern conception of the romantic antihero: a charismatic but cynical loner; emotionally conflicted with a troubled past; a rogue, but not because of a lack of intelligence or education. In Byron’s 1814 poem “The Corsair,” he describes his antihero Conrad:
He knew himself a villain—but he deemed
The rest no better than the thing he seemed;
And scorned the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
Perhaps antiheroes like Dzhokhar are so fascinating to us because we see a little bit of ourselves in them. Who among us doesn’t feel a certain twinge of disaffection at the state of the world? Who among us hasn’t fantasized, at least in a passing daydream, about being an “international man of mystery” like Julian Assange, or a daring whistleblower on the lam like Edward Snowden? Is it any wonder that young men, and even not-so-young men, are enthralled with the James Bond franchise, of which Skyfall is the twenty-third installment?
There are many other antiheroes of dubious moral fiber in Hollywood cinema, almost too many to name: Jason Bourne, Han Solo, John Rambo, and V from V for Vendetta. In these films, of course, the audience comes to identify with the protagonist, even root for him. The victims he dispatches so seemingly dispassionately aren’t “real” people, after all. We miss some of the slaughter anyway because our face is buried in a giant tub of popcorn.
Antiheroes like Assange and Snowden, however, haven’t used violence or physical force to achieve their goals, so far as we know. Their cynicism has compelled them to act with a view to effect change that is worthier of emulation, even though it’s been argued, mostly by the government, that their actions have jeopardized the lives of secret agents and the like. In a recent article in The Guardian, Julian Baggini stresses the importance of being able to distinguish between thinking like a cynic and acting like a cynic. He says that whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden are “both cynical about what they see and idealistic about what they can do about it.” Dzhokhar seems to have only considered half the equation.
Is cynicism, or even a certain level of criminality or illegality - or perhaps a better word is rebellion - a necessary evil in our modern world? As Baggini says, we need cynicism because we “can't make things better unless we see quite how bad they are.” It could be argued that anyone who works against established conventions, or attempts to thwart the intentions of a great political power is in fact a criminal. That person is, at any rate, a rebel. And Nietzsche, in his posthumously published notes, claims that there may be “cases in which one might have to honor the rebel, because he finds something in our society against which war ought to be waged - he awakens us from our slumber.” Is not Snowden such a rebel? Or Assange? What about Dzhokhar?
No, Dzhokhar is not this kind of rebel. It’s true that he makes us aware of injustices that are being perpetrated against innocent civilians around the world; in this case, innocent Muslims who are the victims of “collateral damage” in the West’s war on terror, or are caught in the mob crossfire of unprecedented political upheaval, thanks to Western meddling. But Dzhokhar’s means to raise consciousness only serves to inflame passions that make any rational analysis or discussion of it nearly impossible.
II. Courage or Cowardice?
Whatever else you may think of Assange and Snowden, it’s clear that they were driven by idealistic goals. There is still some element of responsibility in their sedition. They are prepared to be called to the carpet to face the consequences of their actions. Though Snowden’s action seems to be a one-off attempt at change, Assange resists incarceration so he can continue his work at exposing what he deems are crimes by States against their citizenry. Snowden seemingly wants to avoid capture and conviction because he truly believes he’s done nothing wrong.
Dzhokhar, on the other hand, fled the scene because he knew he did something wrong - and something appallingly wrong. Even though he felt compelled to avenge atrocities against his purported brethren, he eventually (allegedly) admitted that he “did not like killing innocent people." He fled because he didn’t want to face punishment for something he knew he should be punished for.
In his musings about the individual and society, Nietzsche further distinguished between the potentially honorable rebel and what we might call the mere criminal:
There are delicate and sickly inclined natures, so-called idealists, who cannot achieve anything better than a crime...it is the great justification of their little, pale existences, a payment for a protracted cowardice and mendaciousness, a moment at least of strength...
Incapable of bringing about any real change, they lack the patience, self-control and courage to engineer an inclusive stratagem that would truly inspire others to do the same, something that would achieve a sort of snowball effect, a constructive tipping point toward some admirable goal. But Dzhokhar was by all accounts a typical American teenager who played sports, listened to hip-hop, watched The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and smoked prodigious amounts of marijuana. And, ironically, a close friend said that he “had a talent for moving between social groups and always seemed able to empathize with just about anyone's problems.” A genuine quasi-emo kid.
III. All in All He’s Just Another Drone in the Hive
As the Boston Marathon bombing showed us, he’s not just any kid. He’s a drone in our communal hive, someone who is “neither ruler nor subject,” as Socrates put it, a disordered person capable of and likely to stir up trouble. But this drone has a stinger, and the maelstrom of family problems, identity issues, and run-of-the-mill teenage angst and ennui led him to use it. Fortunately, he was caught; and like the bee in the hive that dies after stinging, he has been neutralized and removed.
Less than a month before the bombing, Dzhokhar tweeted the following: “People come into your life to help you, hurt you, love you and leave you and that shapes your character and the person you were meant to be.” What he says is half-true, or perhaps a third-true. Genetics obviously plays a part in shaping our character, too, and there is a third aspect that shapes it as well: individual choice. Though choices aren’t free in the sense of being outside the chain of causality that stretches back even to his genetic inheritance, a civilized society must hold dangerous individuals responsible for their choices, if only to quarantine them from the rest of us and deter those who might copy them. Society can’t tolerate those drones molded after the form of Byron’s Conrad:
He hated Man too much to feel remorse,
And thought the voice of Wrath a sacred call,
To pay the injuries of some on all.