Since the second Boston bombing suspect was apprehended on Friday, there's been a wave of support, empathy, and even attraction shown for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. #Freejahar tweets are pouring in every minute; young girls are declaring their desires; conspiracy theorists continue to cry that Tsarnaev is innocent; and at the very least a large portion of the online public appears to be on the fence about the young suspect's alleged guilt.
There's nothing new about having empathy for high-profile suspects — the past is littered with those that defend and even fetishize some of history's most infamous people — and last week's manhunt was one of the most heavily reported in the modern era. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine massacre that left 15 dead and 21 injured, have their own fan club of sorts, and last year the internet reeled in shock as young girls declared their love for the Aurora shooter James Holmes. The Awl's Rachel Monroe drew comparisons between "Columbiners" and Beliebers, but points out that "the main difference, of course, is that Justin Bieber is unattainable because he's a famous pop musician, while Harris and Klebold are famous because they are murderers, and unattainable because they are dead." The nature of these "killer crushes" remains similar nonetheless.
It's not just young girls' misplaced affection that's driving #freejahar, though. The lion's share of pro-Tsarnaev tweets are from conspiracy theorists and those seeking a "fair trial." Wild theories about who was responsible for the bombings began before the world had heard of the Tsarnaev brothers, and there's every chance that, for some at least, the bombings will forever remain an "inside job." Ironically, Tsarnaev himself apparently shares some common DNA with his supporters: one of the tweets found on a Twitter account believed to be his declares 9/11 to be an inside job. A petition on Change.org, which as of this writing is edging closer to its goal of 5,000 signatures, sums up what many sympathizers believe:
"We believe that within the chaos caused by the Boston Marathon explosion, two young men were wrongfully accused of something they did not do, and one of them has lost his life before even getting the opportunity of a proper trial. We do not wish to see blood of yet another innocent victim, someone who, by US law, is innocent until proven guilty. It is vital to end this persecution, as all the conflicting information shown by the media, and footage from the incident, seen by people from all corners of the world, doesn't manifest itself as enough evidence to condemn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of this heinous crime. You promised to the world that you would get to the bottom of this, and we hope you keep your word. We want evidence. We want truth. We want justice."
Many of the #freejahar tweets point to "evidence" first uncovered by online communities such as Reddit and 4Chan, including images depicting differences between bags, while sites like Infowars continue to fuel speculation that the FBI and other authorities were somehow complacent or that the bombing itself was a false flag operation. For every #freejahar tweet, however, there's a user expressing vitriolic disgust that Tsarnaev supporters exist. "#freejahar What!? He's a #Terrorist scumbag and he deserves to fry," says one Twitter user, before adding "all u sympathizers can burn in Hell too." Such statements about a young man in the hospital who has yet to be found guilty of anything can bring out the empathy in all of us. What if that were you? Or your son?
Vice's Michael Byrne notes that it's all too easy to put yourself in someone else's shoes. "Having empathy, you might be confronted with an uncomfortable feeling about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ... that feeling is feeling sorry for him." There's a contradiction there; shouldn't our empathy be restricted to the victims, rather than someone suspected of killing three and wounding over 200 people? Byrne argues that empathy is ingrained within us all, and that by understanding others' beliefs and motives we can prevent such horrors from occurring again.
But how should we attempt to reason with those that believe in a grand conspiracy? Speaking to Wired, Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism researcher at Stanford University, notes that many of the conspiratorially-minded individuals "don't believe anything the government says anyway." The important thing is to attempt to convince the "fence-sitters" by highlighting the suffering caused by the bombs. Online extremism researcher Jarret Brachman says the best policy would be "not to dribble out the facts haphazardly," but rather to "work patiently and methodically through the facts of the case." Evidence doesn’t matter to everyone, though; there will always be those that idolize psychopaths, lust after serial killers, and tweet longingly about suspected bombers.