On Friday as I worked my freshman students through poetry revisions and my sophomore students through heavy symbolism in literature, I felt a steady thrum in the back of my head. At each break, I scanned the headlines. Boston was on lockdown and a 19 year old boy on the loose.
Call me crazy, but while everyone else fretted about the city being terrorized, I felt most worried about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. A picture was forming from the snippets of information reporters puzzled together about the two brothers, and to me it started to become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev–the older brother–would emerge as the mastermind and spearhead of the bombing plot. I felt scared for Dzhokhar, 19 and alone after watching police drill his brother with bullets, probably wounded, the gravity and horror of what he’d done finally settling in and nobody to help and nowhere to run.
Call me crazy, but I wanted to hug him.
Each year when I teach my students Homer’s Odyssey, we talk about types and anti-types. In a lesson I stole from my father, we read about the D.C. Sniper–John Muhammed–and his “sidekick”, the much younger Lee Boyd Malvo who together in the fall of 2002 embarked on a weeks-long killing spree targeting random citizens standing at gas stations or in parking lots. They killed 13 people. I lived in Washington, D.C. that fall. I remember walking across a parking lot in suburban Virginia where I had traveled to buy furniture for my new efficiency apartment on Thomas Circle. I remember feeling exposed and vulnerable–every white van in the parking lot glared at me, every engine sparking to life or car door slamming shut a signal of my impending death.
Lee Boyd Malvo was only 17 years old during the murder spree. He was fatherless, in a kind of identity crisis and exile after moving illegally from Antigua to Miami to be with his mother. Both Malvo and Una, his mom, were caught by Border Control in Bellingham, Washington. Separated from his mother, Malvo turned to Muhammed who he knew from when the older man had courted his mother back in Antigua. Here was a father-figure, here a man to guide him into adulthood, here perhaps some solace after too much disorientation and uprootedness. How easily John Muhammed must have indoctrinated his young protegee.
Just last year, Lee Boyd Malvo–now 28–admitted publicly that John Muhammed had sexually abused him for years.
In class I ask my students, “What if Telemachus had turned to a suitor for mentorship instead of Mentes?” The lesson: young men need good mentors in the absence of fathers, mentors who are, like the character in Homer’s epic, divine at their core.
If Mentor is the type, John Muhammed and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the anti-types.
There are two ways to read the Odyssey: as a hero quest full of pomp and circumstance or as a cautionary tale about the ugly and long impact of war and exile. It takes Odysseus ten years to get home to Ithaca after ten years at war in Troy. He does not return a particularly kind or patient man. He is a wounded soldier, a compromised and questionable leader skilled in the art of deception, and a man full of hubris and a desire for revenge, high-risk behavior his modus operandi. But despite its title, the epic begins and ends with Telemachus–19 or so at the start of the poem and by the end, reunited with his father, Telemachus has gone from a pouty teenager, unsure of his name and lineage, to a man with a father to follow. Called by his sense of kleos–patrilineal glory or renown–he follows Odysseus into brutality. He slaughters hundreds of enemies, hangs handmaids by their braids and mutilates the body of a disrespectful goatherd. The slaying of the suitors at the end of the epic is barbarous, unmerciful, and uncivil (my boy students love it, which frightens me), so horrific that Athena has to step in at the end of the story to ensure that civil war doesn’t ensue.
We can’t draw too many parallels yet, but in Boston we have a 19 year old boy whose father is in Russia. We have two sons born in Chechnya, into a place and time of war, uprooted from a country where war has been the norm for decades, where war dislocates and scatters family members who, unlike Odysseus, often never find their way to any real or even metaphorical homeland. We know Tamerlan spent six months in Russia last year and returned to the U.S., perhaps, with the vengeful lust of Odysseus on the sea. We know Dzhokhar idolized his older brother; we know that his brother was his only nearby relative, his only link to family and cultural identity.
I’m not saying I don’t feel just sick about the the numerous people who lost limbs and loved ones last Monday. I am saying that the trauma of war is residual and pandemic. The effects last even decades after the war and persist especially in an age of rising jihadist sentiment and real exile from both healthy avenues toward manhood and identity and from our native countries.
Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist known for his work with war veterans writes, “The fundamental theme of the Iliad and the Odyssey is the human side of war. These are not classics because the professors say they’re classics, but because they are so good at revealing us to ourselves.”
And Simone Weil once called the Iliad the “purest and loveliest of mirrors.”
Literature has something to tell us if we’d only listen. We cannot, any of us, believe that wars end when the white flag goes up. They never end.
I’m not saying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an innocent victim anymore than Telemachus is innocent or Agamemnon is innocent or any combatant is innocent.
I’m saying I wish Dzhokhar had someone other than his wounded, indoctrinated older brother. I wish Lee Boyd Malvo had somebody other than John Muhammed. I’m saying I wish these boys had a true Mentor. I wish that for them, and for the world.