“Paul Begala: Our Obsession With the Boston Terrorists

Tsarnaev Brothers, denied notoriety.
Why not deny these alleged murderers and all other mass killers the notoriety they seem to crave. Photo illustration: Newsweek & The Daily Beast; Photo: Bob Leonard/AP

Two boys from a troubled region come to America. They are welcomed into the freest, most prosperous, most tolerant country on Earth. They are given welfare, a good education. They repay this nation’s kindness by becoming anti-American terrorists, killing Lu Lingzi, a Chinese grad student; Krystle Campbell, a manager at Jimmy’s Steer House in Arlington, Massachusetts; and little Martin Richard, an 8-year-old from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. They also maim scores of people, including Martin’s sister. Then they murder, gangland-style, Patrol Officer Sean Collier of the MIT Police Department, shooting him several times before he can even get out of his car.


The search for a motive or explanation is absolutely understandable and, up to a point, necessary. But whatever we discover is never going to truly satisfy us. It is impossible to find a rational explanation for irrational violence. Early reports suggest the elder brother fell under the spell of radical, extremist Islam—a bastardization of a great religion. But we can’t blame Islam itself any more than we can blame Christianity for Eric Rudolph’s terrorism at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Rudolph was part of the Christian Identity movement, but he was no Christian. Nor can the Boston terrorists properly call themselves Muslims.

Already the storyline that is emerging about the one surviving Boston Marathon murderer is too sympathetic for my taste. The simple story of a younger brother led astray by his older sibling perhaps makes the monstrous murder more understandable for some. But I’m not buying it. I don’t like the narrative of the poor, young immigrant (his friends call him “Joe”—how all-American) manipulated by his evil older brother (whom he conveniently ran over with an SUV—some victim). This scum allegedly placed a bomb at the feet of an 8-year-old and waltzed away. Let’s be very careful not to paint this murderer (alleged, I know—alleged, alleged, alleged murderer) as a victim.

In fact, why depict him at all? Why don’t the media blot out his face and his name? Let’s deny him and all other mass killers the notoriety they seem to crave. Let’s just call him the Boston murderer or the Boston terrorist. Let’s put a black bar across his eyes in pictures. Why not? The media routinely block out the names of certain crime victims—why not certain criminals? When NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, and his crew were kidnapped in Syria, the media wisely declined to report it, lest their reporting endanger their colleague. Rape victims and children victimized by crime routinely and properly have their identities shielded. I am not talking about censorship, here. I would never tolerate the government telling the free press not to publish a murderer’s name. Instead, I’m talking about judgment, discretion, self-restraint from the media.

Maybe our need to impose order and sanity and reason obscures the darker truth: there is evil in the world. We need to be more comfortable with the sometimes unexplainable nature of evil. And at a more practical level, it may be that the more attention we give to killers like this, the more monsters we create.

And so we mourn the dead, comfort the wounded, honor the heroes. As for me, I’ll leave the analysis of motive to others—perhaps poets—more qualified to explore such themes. In his song “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen tries to get inside the mind of a heartless serial killer, Charlie Starkweather—whose name he never uses. The Boss finds the killer’s mind—and his soul—surprisingly empty: “They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

There is. Let’s confront it, not humanize it. I have a son about the same age as the Boston Marathon murderer. When he was an 8-year-old boy, my son waited at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to cheer his daddy’s triumph. Unlike little Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was standing a few feet from the bomb, my son lived to see me cross the finish line, and he has celebrated many more birthdays.

Martin should have been allowed to grow up, go to the prom, raise a family of his own. Lu Lingzi should have been allowed to finish her studies, complete her faith journey (she had embraced Christianity), live a long, happy, and productive life. Krystle Campbell should be encouraging struggling waiters and welcoming hungry families to her restaurant. Sean Collier should have been able to complete the dance lessons he was taking; he should be going on hikes with his friends, patrolling the streets at night.

The fact that such evil occurred is hard enough to accept. Don’t ask me to ponder the demons that drove the cowards to murder. Let’s just do justice, remember those lost, and banish those murderous losers from the public mind as quickly as possible.