When Jahar Tsarnaev unleashed terror in Boston and the Western world was dragged into a more subtle era of political violence, Scarlett Hawkins watched on in horror as the face of terrorism changed.


For the first decade of the 21st Century, the face of terrorism was a bearded stranger, waging jihad in Arabic from some malevolent, dusty outpost. However, when the Boston Bombings emerged seemingly from the ether, as terrorist acts always do, the western world was drastically dragged into a more subtle era of political violence: making sense of the homegrown radical.

The case had all the hallmarks of the media circus it rapidly became. Reddit spawned a witch hunt that saw the grieving family of a missing young man harassed and told that one of their sons (who was later confirmed dead by suicide) was a terrorist; the naming of naturalized American citizens as the people of interest; the obstruction of justice via misguided college friends tampering with evidence; the terrified lockdown of Massachusetts as police chased the suspects through suburban streets; and most of all, the face. The face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the Tsarnaev brothers and the only one to be brought to trial, given that his older brother, Tamerlan, was killed during apprehension.

Dzhokhar, or Jahar as he was known, was the face that inspired a furious reaction and retroaction on behalf of the general public, who scrabbled furiously in the aftermath of the attacks to direct their justifiable fury towards those responsible. What they didn’t anticipate was just how confronting it was to direct anti-terrorist fervor towards the youthful, Caucasian, handsome face of Jahar Tsarnaev.

The “Free Jahar” movements erupted as soon as the boy was identified. The cringeworthy movement was not, as initially perceived, spawned solely by naïve teenage girls, but of people from all age groups and classes who shared a simple contention – that a boy who more resembled a Disney prince than a villain could not possibly be responsible for such grievous criminal intent.

Then Rolling Stone featured Tsarnaev’s face on its front cover. Its purpose was to promote a comprehensive investigation into the rapid radicalisation of a largely layabout teenage boy. Whilst the piece was thoroughly researched and well-executed, people reacted aggressively towards the promotion of the terrorist’s face on a magazine cover, arguing that such a spread is generally reserved for the rich and famous. Debate flourished: the magazine was in equal parts boycotted and purchased and the content of the article itself – that explored the process of how violence could come at the hands of a boy who, for all intents and purposes, had been “normal” until he detonated two pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding hundreds – was lost in the shuffle.

Therein lies the rub. Jahar Tsarnaev became the face of homegrown terrorism overnight, which was in itself confronting because of the discord between his reprehensible actions and his innocent appearance. This week saw the conclusion of Tsarnaev’s trial, which culminated in a unanimous judgment of guilt and a subsequent condemnation to death that has inspired fervent debate around the world about capital punishment. The sentiments that pervade in the wake are more dissonant than many had anticipated. Those ravenous for retribution are left with a punishment that, if one aligns with the philosophy of capital punishment, is considered just, but there remains a discomfited undercurrent that rumbles through much commentary and vox populi polling. This unease draws back, ever back, to the face. The face of a boy, who played pretend at being a warrior and now faces the very adult consequences of death row.

Tsarnaev’s act was cut-and-dry malicious. He placed his bomb with precision and a cold-blooded callousness that defies any non-radicalised person’s perception of humanity. People died, were maimed, were shoved into the thralls of complex post-traumatic stress as a result of his actions, but there has been no consensus in the discussions as to whether death – and the martyrdom that Tsarnaev has sworn he will achieve as a result – to the perpetrator is the most fair and just recourse for these victims.

It is no secret that each member of the jury was required to be “death qualified” to sit. This clause inspired great debate when stipulated, as Massachusetts has, in recent history, nurtured a progressive anti-capital punishment stance that is profoundly out of sync with the larger American population. Media commentators argue that in requiring all jurors to have willingness to pass the death penalty innately predelicts them to pass it. Whilst this theory can never be confirmed nor denied given the private sanctum that is the jury room, it is not without validity to assume that a comfort with passing such a divisive sentence may correlate directly to active desire to wield it. However, there were no flies on the wall during the Tsarnaev trial that can bring clarity, and so we must instead engage with the reports that can and have been substantiated… Such as the great many publications that have funnelled precious column inches towards scrutiny of Tsarnaev’s demeanour throughout the trial.

Reports of a sullen, silent defendant had been subject to immediate analysis throughout the court case, which largely appeared to reflect pre-determined perceptions of guilt or guilelessness depending upon the publication. For many, Tsarnaev’s blank expression and hunched posture reflected an unrepentant, surly villain of incomparable inhumanity in the face of his crimes. To others, these characteristics were more indicative of a misguided, moronic teenager who had found himself in over his head. Whilst to a degree both positions have validity, from both perspectives a great degree of stock is invested, once again, in Tsarnaev’s appearance. Whilst scrutiny of the defendant is commonplace in just about any judicial process, the obsession with whether the shift of a facial feature suggests remorse or self-satisfaction has not been quite so obsessively broadcast outside of the realm of high-profile media circus trials. After all, that is what the trial of Jahar Tsarnaev rapidly became with all its media attention, “Boston Strong” potentiality of juror bias and celebration in the streets when he was brought to trial.

With so many questions floating around the stratosphere, it’s hard to select merely one upon which to hone. For now, the question is not whether the death penalty is right or wrong. That is a legitimate question, but also one that many with great wisdom are currently debating through opinion editorials around the world. It is not a question of whether he was guilty – he most certainly was, and for that, justice must be served. It is not even, though a crucial query, a matter of whether the combination of condemnation and sentence give peace to the victims of the bombings, which is, in itself, highly ambiguous and thusly problematic to answer.

The question is this: if Tsarnaev looked more like Osama bin Laden and less like the doe-eyed stoner next door, would his sentence have been the same?

There’s no way of knowing for sure… but there’s also no denying that Dzhokhar Tsaenaev’s aesthetics have inspired a complicated reorientation of how the general public perceives the identities who engage in acts of political violence.

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