One of the things that I’ve found utterly fascinating in the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the case, is the way Americans have glommed onto Ruslan Tsarni, the estranged uncle of both of the suspects, and the first member of their extended family to meet the media. It’s a phenomenon Bloomberg reported on yesterday:
Since his nephews emerged as the suspects in the attack, Tsarni said, he has thought often about his efforts to bring and maintain family members in the U.S., as well as a failed attempt to encourage Tamerlan to move to Kazakhstan in 2008. The correspondence he has received from the American public affirmed the love for the U.S. that he professed during his impromptu media appearance last week, he said, and eased some of the shame stirred by a national manhunt for his nephews.
One letter, scratched out in pencil on lined paper, was signed “Emma,” describing herself as a 19-year-old from New Jersey, a non-practicing Christian who felt a sense of compassion for the ethnic Chechens. “I wish the best for you and your family,” she wrote. “You are victims of this mass tragedy as well. Stay strong, ignore the misconceptions and ignorance.”
It’s been striking the extent to which the language in the coverage of Tsarni, and to a lesser extent his nephew, was extremely personal, even from the beginning. Tsarni’s been colloquially referred to as “Uncle Ruslan,” even though he obviously is no relation to any of us, and there’s no need to use his first name to distinguish him from his nephews, since they don’t share a last name. Similarly, news anchors were quick to use Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s nickname “Jahar,” rather than trying to pronounce his real name correctly, because it was an easy shortcut, and because it was in heavy circulation by the many, many friends of his from Cambridge Rindge and Latin who were interviewed during the massive law enforcement hunt for him.
But Tsarni’s stood out as a flexible mass culture phenomenon, someone about whom you can make jokes about him getting a reality show, or to whom you can write a compassionate letter, I suspect, for two reasons. First, he appeared about a ready for the cameras as you could possibly be after finding out that your estranged nephews were suspected in a malicious attack that had killed three people and horribly maimed many others. His initial statement hit all the points he needed to make, reaffirming his love for America, telling Dzhokhar to turn himself in, and perhaps most importantly, suggesting his nephews were “losers” rather than criminal masterminds, a statement that both was an unequivocal judgement on them, and one that—accurately, as it seemed to be turning out—restored the proper scale to the situation, assessing them as alienated and deadly, but independent actors. If people want to be compassionate rather than bigoted during an event that stirs up old fears, and old memories of overreaction, Tsarni gave the American public someone to grab onto, someone to console other than the Tsarnaevs’ parents, who seem to believe their sons were set up, or Dzhokhar’s friends, whose confusion and upset seem absolutely genuine, but is difficult to sympathize with from a great emotional remove. Whether he knew it or not, he turned in a perfect television performance, and picked the perfect role.