We were driving down a rural road in Connecticut on a sullen, grey day while the Boston Police searched tirelessly for the remaining boy behind the Marathon Bombings. Conversation lulled as Sufjan Stevens’ gut-wrenching song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” came up on my iPod.
His father was a drinker / and his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts / when the swingset hit his head
Three years ago, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s citizenship came between him and realizing his potential as a champion boxer. In 2009, he told photographer Johannes Hirn “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”
Three weeks ago, he and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, planted homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar had failed seven classes over the past three semesters and was $20,000 in debt to UMass Dartmouth.
The neighbors they adored him / for his humor and his conversation
Dzhokhar’s classmates spoke well of him, painting a picture of a laid-back, studious teen with little interest in ideological conflict. “When Dzhokhar used to come home on Friday night from the dormitory, Tamerlan used to hug him and kiss him,” the boys’ mother recalls. Tamerlan is survived by his wife and three-year-old daughter.
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things / rotting fast / in their sleep
Oh, the dead
Festering alienation and disappointment cannot excuse the Tsarnaev’s actions.
Even more / they were boys
With their cars / summer jobs
Oh my God
Nor can an understanding of the Tsarnaevs’ suffering justify the deaths of Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell, and Martin Richard.
Are you one of them?
We must react to a violent display of pain and anger. And if we don’t do so with compassion, what do we have left to heal with? Many of us reduced the week of April 15 to simple statements that are easier to digest than the confusing, sad mess of reality: we projected issues of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia onto the perpetrators’ ethnicities even before there was cause, revealing both searing ignorance and an impulse towards greater understanding. We peppered the internet with a poignantly salient quote from Mister Rogers, urging us to “look for the helpers.” As news of the search for the Tsarnaevs spread, we glued ourselves to redundant television reports with their deceptive “BREAKING NEWS” tickers and found ways of listening in to the Boston Police scanners so we could doggedly follow the manhunt that shut down the city.
And these, these are all safer choices than unflinching grief, both for the victims and the bombers.
And in my best behavior / I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards / for the secrets I have hid
Sufjan Stevens posits that we, as humans, are all capable of the greatest good and the most wretched evil. He shows us the formative incidents in the life of John Wayne Gacy, Jr., who took the lives of over 30 young men in the 1970s. He implores us to take in the horrific scenes of these deaths alongside the infliction of Gacy’s psychic wounds. Stevens’ gentle voice, both disturbing and compelling, reaches out to offer us solace, at the price of being with our deepest fear and pain.
P.S. Really brilliant examples of:
1. Compassionate, fuller-picture reporting,
2. Placing the Boston Marathon tragedy into the global scheme of things, and
3. Actually taking the Mister Rogers quote somewhere.
P.P.S. Special thanks to Sufjan Stevens, whose lyrics illustrate this concept so perfectly. Everything in italics belongs to him.