Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Inside the world of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

For all the controversy surrounding the cover shot that went with Rolling Stone's article on the Boston Bomber (addressed by RS contributor and Boston native Matt Taibbi here, noting, among other things, that the New York Times used the same photo to little fanfare), the article itself is quite good. It's one of few attempts I've seen to really get inside the mind and motivation of a murderer, while still acknowledging the monstrosity of his actions.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two bombers, survived the raid that killed his older brother Tamerlan. The article interviews friends of the family, school acquaintances of Jahar (as Dzhokhar called himself in America), and details the brothers' descent from well-liked high school athletes to radical terrorists. It's a transformation that no one who knew the brothers saw coming. The description of Jahar given by his friends is "a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs."
But, as is often the case, hindsight is 20/20, and, upon reflection, a few crack emerged in the Tsaraev brothers' facade. A friend of Jahar's recalls talking to him about 9/11, and when asking his view, Jahar said, "You won't like my answer," and then quickly changed the subject. In Tamerlan, the inclination toward radicalism was more readily apparent. In the period before the bombing, he had begun to embrace a strict form of Islam, and Jahar and the boys' mother soon followed suit. Tamerlan, who once aspired to be an Olympic boxer, had fallen on hard times shortly before the bombing, poor and with his new marriage struggling. Jahar wasn't doing too well either. Though he had gotten into UMass on a scholarship, he was struggling to keep up in his classes.
The relationship between the two brothers is what most interests me about this case. I've studied pair or team killers before, and there's usually a dominant partner and a willing accomplice. It appears Tamerlan was the dominant partner, even from the time they were young. Their mother, family friends say, favored Tamerlan, calling him "Hercules" due to his athletic strength. All the kids in the neighborhood, especially Jahar, seemed to idolize him. Jahar, by contrast, was remembered as a "calm, compliant" child and alternately "smooth as fuck" and "humble" teenager. He started boxing like his brother, but soon moved into wrestling, which his friends interviewed in the article say is a common pastime among Chechen boys.
With Tamerlan becoming more radical, not only getting into fundamentalist Islam but also conspiracy theories (he was a big fan of Alex Jones, who, oddly but predictably enough, immediately latched onto the conspiracy theory that the bombings were a CIA plot), Jahar, as he always had, followed his brother. Some of Jahar's friends, who still have a hard time believing their relaxed, pot-smoking buddy, who was always the first person they called when they needed a favor, could become Public Enemy #1 overnight, think Tamerlan brainwashed him. Tamerlan probably didn't, at least not consciously. Jahar was lost, unsure of what path to take, struggling in school, and, as he always had, looked to his older brother for guidance. Unfortunately, Tamerlan was just as lost, searching for answers, as many have before, in religion and radical ideology, and Jahar got dragged down with him. We still don't know exactly what triggered their desire to make such a grand, grotesque statement, but it happened.
One of Jahar's friends, upon reading an article where nurses at the hospital where he was staying after the raid said they were reluctant to treat him, because they didn't want to end up liking him, said, "People just have blood in their eyes." It's an eloquent, astute observation. It's the reason for the protest of Jahar on the cover of Rolling Stone, lest a photo of a murderer that isn't defaced be equated with excusing his actions. It's the reason level-headed articles like this one, which try to honestly look at the motives behind such a vicious crime, are so rare. People blinded by "blood in their eyes" only want to see the perpetrators suffer. Anything less is considered being too soft. Which is a shame, because Janet Reitman wrote an insightful piece that gets to the heart, or as close as it can, of how and why an ordinary kid can become a terrorist.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Room 237

On the surface, Room 237 looks maddening; a collection of, to put it lightly, unorthodox interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining. The movie itself is fairly well-crafted, aside from an overreliance on gimmicky images (images of frightened movie audiences while discussing scary scenes, etc.) The narration of the subjects is juxtaposed nicely over scenes from The Shining, without ever showing the people being interviewed, which is a nice touch. It lets the theories, however odd they may be, stand on their own, and gives the odd ideas an otherworldliness that's very appropriate. While the premise makes the film sound like an exercise in enduring crazy ideas, Room 237 ultimately emerges as a fascinating look at how people think and how our own biases and experiences shape our perceptions and interpretations of art.
The theories about The Shining put forth in this documentary range from the mildly quirky (one sees it as an allegory for the European genocide of Native Americans, another sees a metaphor for the Holocaust) to the downright bizarre (a metaphor for the myth of the Minotaur, and Kubrick's confession that he helped fake the Apollo moon landing).
As Chuck Klosterman writes in his take on Room 237, this type of approach, which he calls "immersion criticism", wouldn't work with just any film. But The Shining was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was not only reclusive and non-forthcoming when discussing his work (leaving much open to interpretation without input from the source), but was also notoriously meticulous about what went on screen. Actors who worked with him have mentioned doing 60 to 80 takes of even inconsequential scenes (if they were lucky), and shoots that stretched far behind schedule (the shoot for The Shining took over a year). Very few actors worked with Kubrick more than once (Peter Sellers and Kirk Douglas are the only ones I can recall). This was a director who demanded that every detail in every shot be exactly to his liking. As a result, the theorists in Room 237 can be forgiven for finding perceived meaning in the little things.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that it serves as an insight into the thought and interpretation process. Kubrick's version of The Shining differs vastly from the original novel. Stephen King famously hated it, and, knowing this, one interviewee in the documentary puts forth one of the more convincing "hidden meanings." In the book, the car the Torrance family drives to the hotel was red. Kubrick has them in a yellow car, and while they're driving, they pass an accident on the road showing a red car badly damaged. This, the theory posits, was Kubrick's middle finger to King.
Something that's easy to lose track of while becoming oddly enthralled by all the theories (they're crazy, but you still want to see where they're going with it) is, all of the people interviewed are watching the same movie. The same images, dialogue and plot, interpreted in a variety of different and very strange ways. In a film, which is a combination of visual, literary and theatrical art, there are so many facets, any of which a viewer can latch onto and use as the bases of our interpretation of the film as a whole. Some people notice numbers; the Shining/Holocaust theorist concentrates in part of appearances of the number 42, including 237, which, when multiplied, equals 42. Others notice images; the Minotaur theorist saw a picture that looked like a minotaur in the background in one scene and latched onto it, the "Kubrick faked the moon landing" theorist sees a scene of Danny wearing an "Apollo 11" shirt and builds his notion from there. Sometimes, we see something familiar; the Shining/Native American genocide theorist sees a box in the background bearing a Native American caricature and the name of a river near where he grew up, and from there sees other Native American motifs throughout the film, and builds his theory. The concept of seeing/perceiving one thing and building everything else around it has a name, confirmation bias, and it seems to be an innate part of human thought process. But, as Klosterman says, in the case of The Shining, the conspiratorial ideas put forth don't do any real harm, unlike political conspiracy theories. It's just a way, he says, of going deeper into an already mysterious film.
When watching Room 237, I had two thoughts. One, I wanted to watch The Shining again. Two, I noticed something new about The Shining, the prominence of the color red. There's a scene in a red bathroom, red furniture, and several characters wear red. Kubrick, a highly visual filmmaker, must have planned that, probably because red is a dramatic color evoking blood, and The Shining is a story of horror and bloodshed. Or maybe, taking things to the extremes of the theorists, all the red was a sign that the film was an allegory of Communism, or another element in the theory about Native Americans (who were called "red men"). Viewers may mock the subjects of Room 237 for their absurd ideas, but going down the rabbit hole of interpretation is easier than we'd like to admit.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Sandy Hook

The Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in December led to discussions, or heated arguments, about gun control, preceded a string of other public shootings, and even spawned conspiracy theories. The gun control debate has already been amply covered, the other shootings are happening so frequently that I can barely keep track, and this blog does an excellent job deconstructing the absurdities of the conspiracy theory (in a nutshell, the theory goes that the government faked the shooting as a pretext to take away Americans' guns). What I'm interested in, as can be predicted from previous posts, is Adam Lanza and what may have driven him over the edge.

We have little to go on regarding who Adam Lanza was or what may have motivated him, since he had few friends, he destroyed his computer's hard drive, and he started his rampage by murdering his mother, and ended it by shooting himself. But through accounts of acquaintances, we have learned a little. Lanza was described as an intelligent but socially awkward loner who preferred computers to interacting with peers (leading to speculation that he had Asperger's, a diagnosis that has not been proven). He lived with his divorced mother Nancy, who was an avid target shooter (Lanza stole her guns for the massacre), and desperately wanted her isolated son to "fit in." She had sole custody of Adam and his brother. One particularly interesting piece of information came from the Lanza family hair stylist. The employees recall that Nancy directed Adam's movements and answered questions for him, to the point where Adam wouldn't get out of the chair until his mother instructed him to move. Adam didn't speak the entire time, but looked at the tiles on the floor.

What follows is highly speculative. A complex relationship between Adam and Nancy Lanza emerges. Nancy, while fondly remembered by friends, was reluctant to talk about her troubled son, indicating a possibility that she was ashamed of him. While target shooting is a popular hobby, the sheer number of guns Nancy kept in her home was unusual, particularly with a son she knew was mentally unstable. Her tendency to speak for her son was either an acknowledgment that he was uncomfortable speaking himself, or indicated a controlling personality (the guns could have been another way for her to feel in control). Criminal history is fully of mentally unstable men with domineering mothers (Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, Henry Lee Lucas).

Again, this is pure speculation, but here's what may have happened that day. Adam and Nancy got into a fight, which dredged up all the resentment he felt toward her controlling nature over the years, the pressure from her to "fit in." After a lifetime of real or perceived hardships, he decided to kill himself and his mother. To ensure he would truly disappear, he destroyed his computer where he kept the details of his life. Then he took his mother's guns, and, in a gesture of very personal rage, shot his mother four times in the face. Whether he planned from the beginning to continue the shooting at the elementary school or if it was a spur of the moment decision is unclear. But, as we all know, he got there, fully armed and ready to take out anyone he came across. Why he chose the school is also unclear. He had been a student there, and possibly still carried the scars of being an awkward kid ostracized by others. The school, like his home with his mother, carried bad memories, another symbol of the world that had wronged him.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Lee Boyd Malvo ten years later

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the Beltway Sniper shootings in the Washington, DC area. Ten people were killed, and three others wounded. John Allen Muhammed was executed in 2009. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is currently serving six consecutive life sentences in a Virginia prison.

In a recent interview from prison, Malvo called himself a "monster." The interview is revealing. While he says that, during the shootings, he was "desensitized," he's now reflecting on his crimes in a way that could indicate a re-sensitizing to the damage he caused, and shows something resembling remorse. He talks about seeing one victim's husband's eyes-"the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life." Ten years ago, the 17-year-old Malvo reportedly laughed while telling investigators about this murder. One investigator predicted that Muhammed's "spell" over Malvo would wear off. When Malvo went to trial at age 21, separated from Muhammed for the first time in years, he was showing signs of getting out from under this dangerous influence, describing Muhammed's dominant role in the murders and the sway he held. Now 27, with Muhammed dead, Malvo feels the full weight of his actions.

Everyone matures substantially between the ages of 17 and 27, growing from an adolescent to an adult. The author of the article describes the older Malvo as "respectful," which is not an impression the teenage Malvo gave after his arrest, and something that was never said about Muhammed. Malvo says he's been practicing meditation in prison, which may have aided his recent revelations about his crimes.

The young Lee Malvo was easy prey for a dangerous influence like John Muhammed. He grew up in Jamaica and Antigua with abusive parents, and was sick when Muhammed found him and nursed him back to health, earning his trust. Malvo now says that, due to his vulnerability at the time, Muhammed "could not have chosen a better child" for his mission. To Malvo, Muhammed was "the father I wanted," and therefore wanted to please him, despite increasingly cruel demands and erratic behavior. Malvo says, during shooting practice, Muhammed instructed him to kill "the old Lee Malvo," similar to what cult leaders tell their followers, to remove all traces of their former lives. Considering Malvo's disadvantaged childhood, he probably welcomed the chance to "kill" his former self.

Muhammed was on a mission, becoming unhinged after losing custody of his children and the end of his second marriage. While Malvo saw Muhammed as a father, Muhammed saw Malvo as an accomplice in a crime, a disciple to do his bidding (and possibly a replacement son for the children he could no longer see). And Malvo was a willing disciple. But Muhammed's true nature was revealed after the arrest. Before the shootings, he had two failed marriages (one of his ex-wives had a restraining order against him), a string of failed businesses, a charge of kidnapping his children, and a stint in the army that included two court martials (one for disobeying an order, one for striking his commanding officer). This was a man with a grotesquely overgrown ego (a fact further illustrated by his incoherent ramblings while serving as his own attorney at his trial) and a violent streak who couldn't hold a job or make meaningful connections with others. It was the damage to his ego when his wife left with his children that set him off on the rampage that led to his and Malvo's arrests. In short, John Muhammed sounds like a classic sociopath. Malvo finally saw this after the arrest. He says that, after confessing to shootings that he likely didn't perpetrate in an effort to protect his "father," Muhammed readily turned on him to save himself. He saw that Muhammed "doesn't give a rat's ass whether I live or die." Muhammed never truly cared about Malvo. The only reason he wanted a "son" was to help him on his rampage, and to have a young disciple to feed his damaged ego. This was probably a key revelation in Malvo getting out from under Muhammed's influence.

I remember reading some comments from acquaintances after Muhammed's execution who thought Malvo should have been executed too, and that he shared equal blame for the shootings. They would not be swayed by what Malvo said at trial, and in this interview. But I think Malvo is being sincere. While he calls Muhammed "sinister" and "evil" and talks about being under a spell, he never fully absolves himself of the crimes. He says, "I was a monster" and advises "don't allow me and my actions to victimize you for the rest of your lives." The last comment is in response to a question of what he would say to the victims. He says he wants to be forgotten, for the surviving victims to live their lives out of the shadow of his violent acts. "We can never change what happened." When Malvo says "you take that power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control," it appears he's not only speaking to his victims, but also about himself, now out from under a dark influence.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Political brief

Obviously, what's on most Americans' minds lately is the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but I've been a bad blogger and a bad citizen, and have not been following the campaign as closely as I should. As I've said before, I definitely lean to the left politically, and therefore am not a Romney supporter (PBS as first on the budget chopping block? With an increase in Pentagon spending? Maybe I'm naive, but that doesn't seem right). However, Obama has proven disappointing. Big business is as powerful as ever, many civil liberties violations that started under Bush continue, and unemployment has wavered (though today's report indicates that it's now at its lowest since Obama took office), as has the economy. People have been complaining about our political process for decades, and yet nothing seems to change. This highlights one of the core problems with a democracy; there are a lot of stupid people out there, easily swayed by hollow words about personal freedom or public duty. Another problem is, the person who is elected is not always the same person who we see at the end of the term. There are no guarantees that any candidate will, or can, keep campaign promises. This isn't to let the politicians who don't perform up to standard off the hook; one of the good points of a democracy is that the people can make their approval or disapproval known. But we simply have no way of knowing for sure how the candidate we elect will perform once in office. One of the other problems with the political process, the one I've been thinking about a lot with news of the campaign, is the nature of being a nation's leader. It's a thankless job (again, not letting bad leaders off the hook, just trying to make a point). An entire country is depending on them to make good decisions, many of which have to be made at a moment's notice. Since no two people are exactly alike, there will always be a group who doesn't like what the leader is doing, and may be quite verbal or even violent in their displeasure (the reason world leaders, even those no longer in power or just hopeful future leaders, travel with bodyguards). And, particularly in this era, every move is met with public and media scrutiny. Most of us, understandably, wouldn't want that kind of pressure, so obviously the ones who do, and actively court campaign dollars and spend months on the trail to get it, are very different from the rest of us, and maybe not in a good way. Maybe some of them just want the power. Then there's the fact that simply being in power significantly changes a person (a possible subject for another post, once I track down the studies I read), usually for the worse, even those who originally wanted to use their power to do good. Politics is a dirty business, and probably always will be. But the optimist in me (yes, there's an optimist in me now, not sure how that happened) thinks that if the public is better informed about the nature of the political game, we might be able to change it for the better. I'm not sure how, but, to quote a cliche, knowledge is power.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Christopher Stevens, and faith-based violence

The big news this week has been the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Libya. They were killed in an attack on the embassy by radical Muslims offended by a highly amateur film from America that portrayed the prophet Muhammed in a negative light. As an agnostic humanist, maybe I'm not the right person to comment on religious matters. But this is simply an appeal to common sense. What mere film could be so offensive as to make members of a religion believe that they had the right to attack the country the film came from? Just as many Libyans banded together after the diplomats' deaths to condemn the attacks and hail Stevens as a hero who helped their country, the majority of Americans view the film in question as inflammatory and grossly irresponsible in its blatant hatred (there are also reports that the filmmaker lied to the actors and others involved about the movie's subject). The country is not accountable for the actions of one person. Most Americans didn't even know the movie existed until the embassy attack. I'm sure the irony will be lost on the extremists who stormed the embassy in Libya and the extremists continuing to protest across the Middle East, but, they're upset by a movie that portrays Muslims as violent, and they respond with violent behavior that so far has murdered four people who were only trying to help. Religious or personal beliefs are not an excuse for murder. I don't know why we have to keep reminding people of that. Hillary Clinton gave an excellent speech in response to the attacks. She condemned both the movie and the murders, and pointed out that all religions in the world have been subject to insults and bigotry, but these insults are no reason to become violent. Faith, she said (and I'm paraphrasing), is strongest when it can ignore and overcome these insults, not respond with extreme violence. Again, I'm not religious, but it seems that those who rage against anyone who denigrates their religion is not particularly strong in their faith. If a poorly made film can shake your faith to the point where you kill someone over it, how strong can it be? Isn't the definition of faith believing in something without question? Though I have no religious faith, there are several things that offend me: Fox News, governments at home and abroad that deny basic rights to women and minorities based on sheer prejudice, the Catholic Church's refusal to accept that the world has changed since the Middle Ages. But none of this offense is enough for me to kill anyone. I can just voice how I feel, do what I can (peacefully) to try and change laws or policies I believe are unjust, and continue living my life based on my personal code of ethics. The term "personal code of ethics" can just as easily be applied to religion. If anything can be taken from the death of the diplomats in Libya, it's that the peacemakers put their lives at risk just as much as the soldiers fighting the wars. Yet the diplomats have no holidays, no memorials, and we aren't urged to support them as we are to "support the troops." But just like the soldiers, the diplomats are putting their lives on the line in the hopes of making the world a better place. It's a shame they sometimes have to die violently in their quest to bring peace.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The complicated shadows of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

Due to recent changes in my life, I haven't had time to post. But I want to change that, starting now. Between the upcoming election, the Trayvon Martin case and Anders Behring Breivik's trial, there's been a lot to think about, and I need to start writing more. http://news.yahoo.com/george-zimmerman-prelude-shooting-194235114.html http://news.yahoo.com/zimmerman-complained-sanford-police-2011-211229899.html In light of recent revelations about George Zimmerman, where he was recorded last year criticizing the Sanford police, and the "Prelude to a Shooting" article, I have formed a very elementary opinion about what may have happened that fateful night. Zimmerman joined the neighborhood watch after an ill-tempered dog terrorized him and his wife, and was urged by a police officer to get a gun to protect himself. He then became very active in the organization. In 2011, there had been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood, and witnesses pinned the crimes on a group of young black men. With this information, Zimmerman saw a young black man walking down the street one night, and, after another "suspect" had gotten away from him while waiting for the police, did not take the time to follow proper protocol. In his eyes, Trayvon Martin was a potential suspect, and he didn't want another one to get away. So he took matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences. George Zimmerman is not the racist early reports and activists painted him as, but an overzealous vigilante. As for what happened that night, it appears that Zimmerman saw Martin walking home, and pegged him as suspicious, due to his resemblance to the break-in suspects. The rest of this is pure speculation. Zimmerman approached Martin, and Martin, annoyed at Zimmerman's interrogation, started getting angry. This led to a fight, with Zimmerman trying to subdue who he thought was a beligerent suspect. He didn't want to wait for the police, after what had happened with his previous suspect, and, if his critique of local law enforcement is any indication, this was a man who didn't have much faith in the police. During the course of the fight, Zimmerman pulled out his gun and fired. Whether this was self-defense or murder (just how angry Martin got and whether Zimmerman's response was appropriate) is for a court to decide. I don't have enough evidence to make a call either way. But I don't believe this was a case of racial profiling (not consciously, at least). As tragic as it is, it appears that Trayvon Martin was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another big question is how this murky case of vigilantism turned into a cornerstone of discussion of race in American society. The press, either misinformed or deliberately exaggerating and simplifying in the quest for a story, had a big part, as did the activists like Al Sharpton (desperately looking to recover his shattered credibility) who latched onto the case. Even President Obama weighed in on the race issue when he probably shouldn't have. However mishandled the coverage of the Zimmerman/Martin story was, it ultimately became a symbol for everyone in America who sees examples of racism every day. While George Zimmerman may not have been motivated by racism, there are many Trayvon Martins in this country, targeted by police and civilians based on the color of their skin. People heard about Martin's death, the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a vigilante who thought he might be a criminal based on his appearance, and saw similar situations that had happened to friends or themselves. As much as we want to believe otherwise, racism, in many forms, still exists in this country, and those who say so are often shouted down by those who want to deny it because "things are better than they used to be." Trayvon Martin, or the initial perception of his death, was proof of the racism that some of us saw, but some of didn't want to see. While this case has turned out to be far less black and white, the discussion around it brought up issues that need to be faced. When I saw Bruce Springsteen perform back in April, he performed "41 Shots," which was written about a similar case in New York a few years ago. That one was a little less complicated; if the shooting was self-defense, as the police officer claimed, why did he shoot the unarmed teenager 41 times? Springsteen may have been performing the song with Trayvon Martin in mind. But, with lines about taking "the law into your hands" and "you should've never been playing with a gun in those complicated shadows," a more appropriate song for this messy situation is Elvis Costello's "Complicated Shadows."