There’s a frequent exchange that appears in one form or another throughout Plato’s dialogues. It focuses on the question of whether it’s better to suffer or be the one inflicting the suffering. Of course, “better” is a loaded term, and though I can’t read the original Greek to offer a more subtle textual analysis, it’s clear enough in a lot of these passages that what we mean by “better” is the real question under investigation.
While I’ve been able to follow the arguments between Socrates and his interlocutors, I never understood their significance in a more visceral way. Socrates position that it’s better to suffer under the tyrant than to be him always seemed like the necessary consequence of an earlier concession in the argument rather than a forceful point in and of itself.
Then on April 15, 2013, the Boston Marathon was bombed, and four days later the younger of the two perpetrators was found bleeding out in a boat in someone’s backyard. The events were shocking and tragic, but also far removed. I’ve visited Boston only a handful of times. I have no friends or family that live there. So what occurred, while deeply saddening, remained at a distance, along with all of the other horrendous and tragic things which occur to people around the world on every given day.
What the bombing really made me think about was two things. The first was what it would be like not only to lose a limb, or two or three, but to have them blown off—scorched and torn from my body. Physically, this (WARNING: graphic) is not something that my mind can really entertain. Instead, I focused on the less tangible effects: what it would mean for my life, for work and family, or for something as simple as trying to go to the bathroom.
There is a field across from where I work that sits between me and my afternoon commute. I’s a few hundred yards of tall grass and geese droppings, and on a few days I’ve crossed it trying to imagine what it would be like if an IED were planted along my path. I’ve thought about which combination of limbs I would rather lose (everything I could spare in exchange for both my arms and hands). About living one life one moment, and then having the rest of it transformed forever in the next. How I would pity those who would try to take care of me, and myself most of all. And I would be jealous, and angry and inconsolable.
That is if I survived.
While I can’t accurately contemplate the pain or emotions that would take over if I’d laid there bleeding out, I can imagine what kinds of thoughts might go through my head. The sense of absurdity, and loneliness, and unrelenting disgust. Disgust with the person responsible, with the world it took place in, with the people I loved who weren’t there with me, and everyone else for being a part of this miserable enterprise. Disgust for that which brought me into this world only to mutilate and torture me before ripping me back out of it and into the void.
The second thing is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev laying in that boat, scribbling on its walls a hate-filled epitaph with the blood flowing irreversibly from his flesh. I imagine myself laying there too, angry and sad and terrified. I don’t know what Tsarnaev thought or felt in those hours. All I know is what I might feel if I were there, and what I felt for the person I imagined to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as I played the scene out over and over again in my head.
I felt immense sadness and grief for Tsarnaev, not least of all because of how the events were playing out in, and situated by, the media. But while I’m sure plenty of it was a response conditioned by the drama surrounding his attack, and how much more reported on he was than any of the victims of it, there was something more to it. He did horrible things; things he most likely couldn’t even understand; things that could never be taken back or made right again.
On occasion I have had dreams in which I’ve done horrible things to perfect strangers. They are nightmares–fantasies of rage-fulfillment followed by shame and emptiness so crushing I wake up in a cold-sweat and am haunted for the rest of the day.
I have no interest in arguing the merits of Rolling Stone’s August issue cover. People have the right be offensive, and to be offended, and while I was not, I did rip the cover off before taking it on my subway ride to read. I think the image and article are important together though. Some monsters are born that way, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not. The particulars of how he became one, and whether Janet Reitman’s diligent reporting but ultimately speculative storytelling gets them right, aren’t that important, at least not to me. What does matter is the simple reality that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t have to become who he turned out to be.
That he is so young only emphasizes this potential more starkly. The knot that forms in my stomach when I think about the legacy he now faces is tied to how possible it feels that things could have been different. If someone like Bill O’Reilly had this perspective, he might be more inclined to see young Black men differently, not as criminals in waiting, but as people full of different possibilities whose futures are not statistically destined to fulfill the worst suspicions of white, middle-aged pundits.
And then there’s the question posed by Plato. I want to invert it. Is it worse to be the villain, or to be killed by one? There’s a moral dimension to this line of inquiry which presupposes that the answer is, without question, that it’s worse to be the villain. But what if we cast that aside? Regardless of any moral considerations, which would be preferable, to be one of the three people killed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? That I would take my own life if I were Tsarnaev, or at least cannot imagine allowing it to continue, tells me it’s the former.