Note: names have been changed in an attempt to protect those mentioned below.
A common theme throughout interviews of those who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is one of shock, confusion and bewilderment. How could someone so seemingly normal do something so horrendous? His actions before and after the bombings only make the story seem more bizarre. He went on with life as usual, returning to his college campus and tweeting things a normal teenage boy would. He even
discussed the tragedy with a friend.
As I read the stories of those who knew Dzhokhar in college and high school, his classmates, teammates and friends, I empathize with their confusion. I too went to school with a killer. The questions of how and why do not go away, even after all these years. In a way, the not knowing haunts you.
I was fifteen and almost at the end of my freshmen year of high school. I’ll never forget that day. I walked into the kitchen to find my mom on the phone and my older brother, a junior at the time, sitting on the stairs looking stunned. My immediate thought was that something had happened to my grandfather. Then my mom said, “Alex killed his parents.”
My family knew Alex; he was in the same grade as my brother at our small private school. We knew his family, his older sister was a few grades above my brother, and we went to their family Christmas party the year before. Initially, I thought my mother meant they had been in a car accident, and that Alex had been driving. My fifteen year old mind couldn’t imagine the truth. It wasn’t an accident, it was murder.
Details were scarce at first, and people had all kinds of theories as to what happened. I remember sitting in my best friend’s kitchen with her sister and her sister’s friend discussing what had happened. As I struggled to describe my feelings, someone said “It’s surreal.” I still don’t know to describe what I felt that day, other than to say it was surreal.
Eventually we would learn the disturbing details. Alex used a shotgun, reloading after each shot, to shoot his mother twice and his father three times at their home. That wasn’t the worst of it though. His sister was away in her freshmen year of college and no one else was home. The bodies weren’t discovered until two weeks later, when his sister became worried enough to call the local police after she hadn’t been able to reach her parents.
Two weeks. The more details that came out about those two weeks, the more unsettling the case became to me. In that time, Alex continued to come to school and go to track practice. He even went to prom. He had a few friends over after prom, telling them the smell was because of a broken refrigerator. I remembered something my brother had said earlier, that Alex had shown up to class wearing the same
outfit several days in a row. Now it made sense, he had been staying at hotel when he was arrested.
I’d see his parents in my mind. I’d see their house, complete with Christmas decorations. I’d see the sign, “Joe’s bar” hanging over his father’s bar in the living room. I couldn’t fathom what had happened inside that house. My mind constructed visuals for the details in the news and I had trouble sleeping. Those images have faded now. I can barely picture his mother, even less so, his father.
Alex would be tried a few years later, and sentenced to nearly 50 years for the murder of his parents. The defense arguments provided no closure in my mind. They argued that Alex’s father was abusive and that was why he killed them. I didn’t believe that, and neither did his sister or two half-brothers.
The question of why still lingers, even as the memories fade. I used to think of Alex almost daily, it wasn’t hard to be reminded, especially in the days that followed the discovery with reporters camped on the sidewalk across from school. Now I only think of him after the occasional reminder. Going through old photographs, I found a picture of him and my brother. And the old question arose. Why?
A sufficient answer will probably never come as to why Alex killed his parents, especially after all these years. He won’t be released until he is nearly 70 and his crimes will long be forgotten by most. Except for those who were close to him and his family. They will never forget. Although I knew Alex and his family, I was still very removed from the situation and it still has affected me so. I cannot imagine the effects felt by his siblings, his friends, his girlfriend at the time, even my brother.
I do know that ignorance is not bliss. Not in cases like these. You try to come up with reasonable explanations for what occurred. For Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the picture is a little clearer. A young man became radicalized on his own after feeling alienated by his American peers. For Dzhokhar, questions still remain. At this time, he is conscious and communicating with investigators through writing, but not many answers have been given, at least to the public. Until then, his friends will most likely question
everything. Every conversation, every action. How could this happen? Could I have seen this coming? If a proper answer is given, it likely will not be enough. They will be haunted too.
To Alex’s sister: I hope you never read this. I’m so sorry if you have. I never meant to serve as another reminder.