Dzokhar Tsarnaev, Neil Gaiman and the Failure of Imagination

Forgive me for seeming to trivialize a tragic story that has already been overexploited, but I have to ask: has anyone out there noticed how much Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looks like a young Neil Gaiman?

Of course, the comparison is superficial–it’s a safe bet that the British-born, bestselling fantasy novelist and comics writer will never be accused of terrorism.  Both men are immigrants to the United States, but there the commonalities appear to stop.

Yet invoking Gaiman may well give us something to think about, even if it won’t help us understand exactly what may have motivated the two brothers to commit the crimes of which they’re accused. For Gaiman is not only a world-famous author; he is a storyteller whose main preoccupation is the role stories play in our construction of our lives.  Gaiman’s own life is ridiculously well-documented, thanks to his relentless Internet presence, his readiness to be interviewed, and his association with indie music stars (a decades-long friendship with Tori Amos and a recent marriage to Amanda Palmer). Rightly or wrongly, his readers and fans are convinced they know him.

Boston Marathon Explosion

In the few days since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest and his older brother’s death, the media have been desperately trying to find out as much about him as possible, parsing tweets with talmudic zeal and dragooning Russian speakers into translating his disappointingly banal Vkontakte page. The scarcity of information has turned every talking head into a prolific storyteller.  Their productivity would put even Gaiman to shame, though their limited imagination suggests that they shouldn’t quit their day jobs just yet.

Before the suspects were identified, speculation was a matter of choosing among the pre-existing profiles that have lodged themselves firmly into our psyches.  David Sirota caused a scandal on the right when he expressed the hope that the bombers would turn out to be “white Americans,” while CNN squandered much of its remaining journalistic capital by announcing the arrest of a “dark-skinned male.” In the absence of a star, we make do with central casting.

The discovery that the alleged bombers were Chechen was something of a jolt to Russians and Russianists, since Chechens and “dark-skinned males” come from parallel national demonologies. Suddenly, two security-state franchises were engaging in a cross-over, as if Spider-Man were fighting the Joker.

Now we have been asked to choose between another set of familiar stories.  Were the Tsarnaev brothers radicalized jihadists who hate our freedoms?  Or were they the second coming of Columbine?  The readiness to assimilate a new catastrophic event to an old story is not only politically depressing–it’s a colossal failure of the public imagination.

Had both brothers died, we may well have been left with a mystery that looked unsolvable.  With Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive and in custody, we are tantalized by the possibility of learning the real story.  So eager was law enforcement to hear him speak that he heard his Miranda rights only after a significant delay, with many public calls for these rights to be waved entirely.  Such an unnecessary violation of a suspect’s right would be yet another failure of imagination: the ritual reading of Miranda is a ubiquitous incantation, only slightly less familiar than “Your call is very important to us.”  Thanks to the Law and Order police procedural juggernaut, television viewers worldwide know about their Miranda rights, even if they live in countries where they don’t enjoy them.

The greatest irony, of course, is that, thanks to a throat wound, Tsarnaev literally cannot speak.  We should plan on being frustrated by his silence for many days to come, just as we should count on the media (old and new) to try to sate our curiosity by passing off a rerun as something new.