OK, so Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stands accused of blowing up three people, injuring 282 more and shooting to death an MIT campus police officer. He’s also got fans, or more accurately, he’s got fangirls, thousands of them.
These besotted double-X chromosome-bearers feel sorry for “Jahar,” the nickname he used as a Twitter handle and that is now part of dozens of hashtags (#FreeJahar is a favorite), Facebook pages and Tumblr blogs. The fangirls think Dzkokhar was a naive campus weedhead who fell victim to the influence of his jihad-obsessed 26-year-old brother. Or they think both brothers fell victim to a complex conspiracy, possibly involving the government, to frame them as Muslims for the April 15 bombings. Or they think the officers who apprehended Dzhokhar on April 19 were mean to fire on the boat where he was hiding while he lay unarmed and bleeding inside.
Mostly, though, they think Dzhokhar is cute. The Bambi eyes (looking right out of his Instagram-doctored photos at you!), the hipster facial stubble, the masses of wine-dark tousled hair — adorable! Impassioned believers have written “Dzhokhar is innocent” on their hands and plastered “Innocent until proven guilty!!!!” posters around their towns. An 18-year-old waitress interviewed by the New York Post vowed to have Dzhokhar’s last tweet before the bombing tattooed onto her arm: “If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that’s left is to take action.”
Twitter fare has included such sentiments as “I hope to meet him one day” and “i wonder what jahar is thinking about right now.” The ultimate online heartthrob site may well be the Free Jahar page on Tumblr, where photos of the mop-headed bombing suspect alternate with such weeper sentiments as this Mother’s Day message: “Let your next prayers go out for a young man sitting alone in his prison cell with nothing but himself and his sorrows, who doesn’t get the opportunity to see his mother.”
Syndicated columnist Hanna Rosin has attributed Dzhokhar-centric female ardor to “misplaced maternal sympathy.” She notes that even some mothers and grandmothers among her friends, “generally pretty reasonable intelligent types,” have told her some version of “I feel sorry for that poor kid” — seemingly forgetting that one of the three people blown to pieces on April 15 was an 8-year-old boy whose 7-year-old sister lost her left leg.
There may be something to Rosin’s theory, especially in our current age of hyper-prolonged adolescence, where maturity doesn’t seem to set in until age 30. (Thanks to Obamacare, let’s remember, offspring up to age 26 — Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s age at his death — can remain on their parents’ health insurance policies.) Many people seem to have forgotten that, at age 19, Dzhokhar is legally an adult entitled to vote as a U.S. citizen.
But the real cause of the Jahar craze more likely lies in something more primal and less pretty in the female psyche. I’m betting that women, young and old, are drawn to Dzhokhar not because he is a good-looking late adolescent but because he is a good-looking accused killer. He’s a classic “bad boy” of the sort to whom women are chronically attracted because they want to reform them, or minister to their wounds, or be the healing presence they’ve never had — but mostly because they find them sexy.
All you have to do is look at the numerous photos of Dzhokhar on the Free Jahar page on Tumblr or in news stories or elsewhere. You won’t see a helpless, confused near-child who misses his mommy. You will see a physically imposing (he was a wrestler), exceedingly self-confident young man who is quite aware of his attraction to females — and quite uninterested in abiding by standard social rules (remember that he was allegedly dealing weed in his dorm as well as consuming it in large quantities). In short, Dzhokhar in his photos looks cocky. Women love cocky.
This, of course, goes against all current conventional wisdom about the kind of men that women want: sensitive, egalitarian, feminism-friendly guys who split the housework 50-50 (or better yet, do it all so their wives can “lean in” at work).
In fact, as any evolutionary psychologist can tell you, women, like other female primates, crave dominant “alpha” males who demonstrate the strength to protect them and pass on survival traits to their children. And in a society such as ours, where the phrase “head of the household” is anathema and men are forbidden to dominate in socially beneficial ways, women will seek out assertive, self-confident men whose displays of power aren’t so socially beneficial.
It’s not surprising, then, that every homicide perp on death row who is reasonably attractive has groupies. Consider the handsome (and widely philandering) Scott Peterson, sentenced in 2005 for killing his wife and unborn son and throwing their remains into San Francisco Bay. The day he checked into San Quentin, he received three dozen phone calls from smitten women, including an 18-year-old who wanted to become the second Mrs. Peterson.
It’s probably a good idea, if you are religious, to say some prayers for Dzhokhar, who is likely to need them. It’s probably a bad idea to feel sorry for him. The worst idea of all, though, is to imagine that the obsessive female attention, adulation and pity lavished on a mass-murder suspect such as Dzhokhar is a cultural anomaly.
Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.