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McGrath: Alleged Boston Marathon bomber: Jekyll and Hyde

This phoreleased Friday April 19 2013 by Federal Bureau Investigatishows suspect thofficials identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being sought by police

This photo released Friday, April 19, 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows a suspect that officials identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, being sought by police in the Boston Marathon bombings Monday. (AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Investigation)

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:46AM



It is not unreasonable to speculate that the three public defenders representing alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might end up filing a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

Evidence that might support their claim is documented in his birth certificate. Not because of his geographical origin or ethnicity. The proof is in his age of 19.

Maybe modify the plea to temporary stupidity?

Being 19 is not a defense, of course. There is no excuse for a murder spree that began with killing three people and injuring about 265 others with homemade bombs and later slaying a police officer.

But the fact that Tsarnaev is 19 offers us some understanding, at least, to help harmonize Version A — which friends and relatives described as a gentle, humorous, laid-back kid who tried to fit in — with Version B, a monstrous terrorist who murdered and maimed innocent men, women and children.

As a teacher of college students, I’ve known hundreds of 19-year-old males over the years. They run the gamut from mature and gifted, such as one who invented an apparatus for integrating a home computer with the family car, to another who flunked out of two colleges for “cutting loose,” his euphemism for going a 12-month beer bender.

Writing in Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Mark Banschick profiled American youth who “yearn for freedom” and make bold moves to escape the “constriction of childhood ... and see all the possibilities that lie beyond (their) family’s home” (“Our Avoidant Boys,” Sept. 7, 2012).

What 19-year-olds have in common is that they are open to new experiences where they might apply their energy and passion, without necessarily having the wisdom or caution to moderate their commitment or gauge the consequences.

Many of us can recall our impetuosity at that same age. In metaphorical terms, when a young American male starts to feel his manhood, it’s like having a ticket for an all-expenses-paid trip to anywhere in the universe.

For most, it’s a ticket to amazing, outstanding life destinations. For a few, unfortunately, it’s a ticket to hell.

The American protest movement of the last century abounds with mass examples, when the prowling restlessness of college youth found an outlet in an array of dynamic causes, from anti-war to pro-life.

Thousands enlisted in worthy crusades in which they could vent their youthful passion. But for most, it would never be an obsession or a kind of religion or a cause for martyrdom because they had futures and lives to lead.

More importantly, they had families who had their back — providing them with an upbringing that, while permitting the freedom to make bad choices, had implanted in them a profound sense of right and wrong and universal principles of humane behavior.

Contrast that with what we know of Tsarnaev and his absent parents in distant Russia, insisting on wholesale denial of the facts of their sons’ crimes and behavior, even after they were shown proof.

And when we learned of their severely dysfunctional marriage, the mother’s arrests for criminal theft and attempts at gaming the establishment and with his older brother’s radical Islamic views, we begin to understand the seeds of Tsarnaev’s immoral transformation.

Psychologist Emmanuel Rice conducted a study of adolescents seeking a religious father figure after a loss of familial identity: “Security and happiness experienced in the powerful and loving arms of one’s mother and father ... is thought to be obtainable only by establishing an almost identical relationship with an adult surrogate” (Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol. 16, 1999).

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s brother was that surrogate, one with apparently much influence over him and in possession of a wicked manifesto and a plan to which Dzhokhar signed on with his own blood.

Yes, he was personable and good-looking and gentle and kind — more interested in soccer and parties than politics and religion, according to his classmates. And like other 19-year-olds, he had that metaphorical blank ticket to pursue any dream.

Tragically, he punched his ticket for Boston, for violence, for terrorism and for life in prison, if not the execution chamber.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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