Why do almost all political killers have young admirers?
That’s Louis Lingg, the German anarchist partially responsible for the 1886 Haymarket Bombing. Haymarket started as a labor demonstration. When the police came in to break up the demonstration someone threw a dynamite bomb at them. Seven police officers, and four other people, were killed in the event. Investigators later discovered dynamite bombs in Lingg’s apartment. He was arrested and tried with seven other anarchists.
So the glories of American-grown, politically-based urban terrorism pretty much stem from this guy. But that doesn’t stop people from loving him. Commenters on the Lingg post at MDB include wherestheoffbutton, who wrote “I’d tap.” Marielvb added, “looks just like channing tatum!” On another website someone noted that Lingg was notably sexy “because of the simple fact that he makes anarchy look less neckbeardy.”
This looks familiar. One of the more unsettling aspects of the Boston Marathon Bombing has been the popularity of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He’s not a terribly sympathetic character. The note he apparently left in the boat where he was captured indicated that he believed the Boston victims to be "collateral damage” in the same way Muslims were killed in the American-led wars.
Nothing in his background indicates anything particularly evil or destructive, the most one can say about Tsarnaev is that he just kind of liked to smoke pot and hang out with his posse of Central European slackers at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Well, and that he was kind of attractive. As an ex-girlfriend said: "I met him standing outside a building and honestly, his face was enough to capture my heart. I walked right up to him and I was like, 'Oh my God, you are adorable. Can we hang out?'"
As Paula Bloom wrote in the New Yorker:
Tsarnaev might not look particularly competent, but he is attractive—[law professor and blogger Ann] Althouse describes him as “a hot-looking young man.” Many studies have confirmed that individuals with attractive faces are judged to be happier, kinder, and more intelligent than their homelier counterparts; they are paid more, and are treated better in just about every venue of life. Experiments with simulated juries find that, when the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence. Even better for Tsarnaev, he is baby-faced: studies find that baby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.
Well, perhaps. But this is actually a common feature of the world’s political assassins. Tsarnaev’s attractiveness is not unusual. If you want to be a terrorist, it’s not just necessary to be an ideological zealot unconcerned with legality or normative morality; it also helps to be fairly good looking. This concept of attractive guys as the world’s killers is, in fact, so common that the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander posited that male models were behind all of the political assassinations of the last two centuries.
That’s very funny. What’s perhaps a little less funny is that the pretty boy assassin observation is technically accurate. And because they’re so often young men—older guys with mortgages and children aren’t often political terrorists; they have too much to lose—from unfortunate backgrounds, they tend to develop strange followings of teenage girls more than any other group.
Check out this Gawker piece about the Tsarnaev’s fans, the #FreeJahar girls.
"Jahar" is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's friends and Twitter followers call him, and #FreeJahar is the hashtag banner around which thousands of people have rallied on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook to closely follow Tsarnaev's case and share what they believe to be evidence of his innocence. [One fan explained that] "I do believe he is very cute, but that’s not the reason I am personally involved in this movement," she emailed me back. "I am in this because I don’t believe its right to put a totally innocent person in jail for the rest of his/her life or even death penalty. I don’t care who it is, it just isn’t fair."
Likewise, Gavrilo Princip, the 20-year-old man who started World War I by killing the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, has some followers of his own. One admirer wrote of Princip that “not only did this saucy Yugoslavian Nationalist start the Great War, but he has the emotional eyes and the square jawline of a lady killer as well. The 'stache ain't bad, either.”
The killer as Internet rock star thing happens often. Rachel Monroe writes at The Awl that:
Tumblr turns out to be the perfect medium for a crush shrine, one that's far more dynamic and interactive than a scrapbook or a bedroom wall. It allows posts and re-posts of pictures, quotes, gifs, and video clips while discouraging wider analysis or any sort of logical connection between content. Instead, the obsession acts as its own context. Every Internet trinket relating to the crush object—a photograph of his parents' house, a doodle in the margin of his math homework, a yearbook photo, a stock photo of the gun he preferred, his autopsy report—is relevant, because a girl with a crush is omnivorous, and very, very hungry.
Or, perhaps more directly, teens crush on famous murderers in part because crushes are dumb. They're not supposed to make sense.
The unattainable, mysterious crush appears to work entirely independent of the crush object’s actual personality or behavior. The famous killers are also crush targets because journalists publish all sorts of intimate details about the killers’ lives. One can easily find childhood pictures, family information, and minutiae about the killers’ leisure activities and food preferences, much like with that other group that's overrepresented in the dreams of teenage girls, pop stars. Consider: Justin Bieber. And this is exactly the sort of thing that feeds crushes.
One might think that this development could be troublesome to authorities, but it mostly seems not to matter. There are no corresponding counter-efforts to make Dzhokhar Tsarnaev look bad, after all.
That’s because the sort of empathy these figures generate is a vague compassion for their lives and situations, not their actual cause. A frequent trend here is not sympathy for their beliefs but, rather, a conviction that these adorable young men can’t possibly be involved in such things; they must be innocent victims. It’s really too bad that such a nice boy got caught up in a terrible thing, cluck so many sympathizers. No one ever seems to think the thing they did is therefore justifiable or decent.
And do remember that their fan base mostly consists of teenagers. Not, you know, criminal masterminds.
A #FreeJahar writer does say of Tsarnaev that “I think he was wrongly blamed. I think its [sic] because he’s Muslim. And so far I haven’t seen any proof that he did it.” But then, FreeJahars also write stuff like “I bought this eyeshadow that was supposed to make Brown eyes pop and I gotta admit that it really did. I can’t stop looking at my own eyes lol.”
If they do feel passionate about this issue, that's fine. They also seem to feel passionate about the band One Direction, police brutality, and their own nails. They’re hardly likely to organize in order to bust Tsarnaev out of jail. They’ve got homework to do.
As for Lingg, he and the six others conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. One day before his scheduled execution, he “smuggled dynamite caps into his cell and bit them, destroying his jaw.” He died six hours later. But he lives on in the name of a French punk band, Louis Lingg and the Bombs. According to the group’s Facebook page, “the bombs they throw are musical.”