It's been nearly 20 months since two explosions tore through the finish area of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds more. And now, at long last, the surviving half of the brother duo accused of orchestrating the attack is about to stand trial. But not everybody is happy about that — as has been the case for a while now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fandom is real, continuing from the immediate aftermath of the bombing clear through to today.
It's a bizarre, fascinating, and altogether distressing phenomenon. While everyone under the American judicial system is considered innocent until proven guilty, that's not a standard that prevents private citizens from holding opinions. And sadly, some people's opinions about Tsarnaev have veered into the realm of the conspiratorial. A sort of low-level cult of personality seems to have built up since the bombing, to such an extent that his defense team has requested supporters be kept off the courthouse steps during the trial. They seems to think that allowing Tsarnaev's fans to gather there and voice their theories of the case could bias a jury against him. And while I'm not similarly qualified to judge, I'd be inclined to agree.
So, how exactly did we get here? How did one of the country's most infamous alleged bombers become a cause célèbre for so many on social media?
Diagnosing a movement like this is tricky business, obviously. But maybe it's possible to take some of his advocate's words for it, to help figure out why they're championing his cause.
He Looked Like a Handsome, Unassuming Young Man
Sound strange? Yeah, it does — plenty of perfectly nice looking people have also committed heinous acts, after all. But it's impossible to avoid that for one segment of Dzhokhar's base of support (which, it should be mentioned, commonly refers to him as "Jahar" and "the Lion"), his youthful good looks seem to play a role.
He Was Treated As A Fascinating Figure
To be perfectly clear, I'm absolutely not saying that the controversial Rolling Stone cover featuring Tsarnaev played any kind of causal role in this — the #FreeJahar hashtag predates their cover. And in the age of social media, some collection of people can always quickly and easily stake out a base of support for almost anything. But there's no denying that the horrific nature of what happened in Boston. both the bombing itself and the manhunt that preceded it, allowed Tsarnaev's image and life story to get a very public airing.
Illustrative of this morbid fascination, and not to be forgotten, singer and musician Amanda Palmer (formerly of the Dresden Dolls) authored a widely reviled poem about Tsarnaev, set in the moments before he was apprehended by police in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Good, Old-Fashioned Conspiracy Theories
Make no mistake, however, no matter how many people seem grossly enamored with Tsarnaev's soft eyes and shaggy hair — the root of Tsarnaev's base of support is that old, proud American tradition: the conspiracy theory. No less than Tsarnaev's own mother pushed this narrative in the aftermath of the attacks, suggesting they may have been the victim of a staged set-up.
If you peruse any of the vehemently pro-Tsarnaev hashtags (#FreeJahar and #FreeTheLion, primarily) you'll find any number of leading questions, suggestive statements, and dangling threads that his supporters have culled together into a pretty unlikely premise: he's entirely innocent of the charges.
The situation has come to a head, as Tsarnaev's trial is about to begin — as I mentioned earlier, the defense wants to keep the courthouse free from vocal supporters of his, because in all honesty, they can only hurt his chances. Waving signs about "false flag" attacks, and offending the victims of the bombing (many #FreeJahar supporters seem to believe that actors were used and nobody really got hurt, a common trope also seen in 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories) isn't a great strategy for winning hearts and minds.
The Boston Bombing trial is slated to begin this week, with its third day of jury selection going on Wednesday. And it seems unlikely, frankly, that anything but an acquittal would be satisfactory to Tsarnaev's devotees. If I were the betting sort, I'd have to wager on the opposite outcome.