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The storm in a teacup that has brewed over the recent Rolling Stone cover
is indicative of how difficult it is to deal with our human nature, an issue thrown into stark relief by figures like Tsarnaev brothers. In my (very brief) perusal of the article, it reads like an honest attempt to understand how a “normal” kid can commit rather shocking actions, without demonizing him into a safe, non-human other. Humans dislike this kind of analysis, though, and find it threatening, because it implies that each and every one of us holds the same potential to evil as these two. It is psychologically easier to call them “monsters,” “losers,” “terrorists,” etc than to understand the dynamic that makes them humans who committed inhuman actions. They are hardly unique in their radicalization and rather low-key in terms of the level of their violence before they were caught, yet because of their ages and previous popularity they raise an uncomfortable question about supposedly civilized society in the West. The combination, if faced squarely, reminds us that civil society is merely a handy veneer and not indicative of moral progress (of individuals or society).

The threat involved in facing the ambiguity of the human condition can be circumvented by classing particular individuals and groups as safely evil. This achieves two things: 1) it makes an ethical judgment on particular actions and 2) it implies that somehow the rest of us are immune to such actions since the ones who did it were “evil.” The latter is the reason why academics tend to deplore black/white dichotomies or strong, dualist ethical systems. All too often and too easily they become excuses for demonizing (or “othering”) individuals and groups. This is important and needs to be critiqued often. The responses to the Rolling Stone cover (e.g., as reported by the BBC) demonstrate this nicely. There is a real danger of taking the actions of these two guys as a reason to view them, their religion, and their home country as “other” and thus to deny them the same rights and responsibilities granted to “us” humans. However, academics often fail to note that the black/white dichotomy is useful for highlighting the ethical issues. Certainly no matter how strongly we need to state that both brothers were still human, placing bombs in a marathon is a deplorable act deserving of strong moral and ethical condemnation. Sometimes a focus on the othering effect of language can overlook the important point that the ambiguity of the human condition does not negate the relevance and necessity of ethical judgments.

Whatever Janet Reitman’s analysis of Dzhokhar is in the end, it is to be welcomed as an attempt to avoid othering the perpetrators and thereby avoid looking at the evil we each harbor within ourselves.