Dzhokhar Tsarnaev publicly reacted to last Monday's bombings in Boston like many -- if not most -- American teenagers: with a tweet.
Just five hours after the bombs went off, as survivors fought for their lives in emergency rooms and law enforcement scrambled through wreckage for their first real clues, Tsarnaev swiped open his iPhone and shot off an entirely unremarkable message to a smattering of friends and followers: "Ain't no love in the heart of the city, stay safe y'all". Just another vague plea for peace from a chill, normal dude, a dime-a-dozen response that most would have glossed over in search for actual news.
In that moment, he wasn't Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the alleged terrorist. He was @j_tsar, the homie Jahar. Not an extremist with reserves of ammunition and explosives, but a boring old teenager, taking a moment to do what so many young people do multiple times a day: retreat to the internet and check in with his online persona, leaving his real problems behind.
In the past, Tsarnaev would occasionally tweet things that seem menacing in retrospect (i.e. "If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action" from April 8th). But his Twitter account was still overwhelmingly normal for his age and demographic. He made dickish jokes, talked about Game of Thrones and hooking up with girls, called friends gay, used stupid pot-smoking lingo, and quoted a lot of rap. His voice was often disarmingly savvy and hip for a crude, dopey nineteen-year-old, hardly that of a detached extremist or ideologue.
And yet even as the federal government was preparing to throw its full weight behind his capture, @j_tsar kept tweeting. He interacted with unsuspecting friends, made a bizarre, possibly relevant joke ("So then I says to him, I says, relax bro my beard is not loaded"), and quoted Eminem. He even responded to a parody account based on the the sophomoric film "Ted", which tweeted out a viral image from the bombings with a fake heartwrenching caption, and called it out for its insincerity. Whether that was Dzhokhar the terrorist displaying some chest-pumping hubris or Jahar the bro feigning (or expressing?) a popular sense of disgust with opportunistic online trickery is hard to say.
But that sense of online ambiguity is hardly unique among young people in this day and age. While the context of Tsarnaev's tweets is abnormal to say the least, his cryptic method of burying upheaval is anything but. A Cambridge mechanic described Tsarnaev's demeanor on the day after the attack as visibly nervous -- biting his nails as if he were on drugs, yet the next day he tweeted what could only have been at the time an inside joke with himself: "I'm a stress free kind of guy".
But it makes so much sense. So much of developing an intriguing online persona for young people involves publicizing one's private insularity: broadcasting an inaccessibility thereby creating an aura of mystique, typically via unattributed quotes or arbitrary musings and pop-culture non sequiturs. Why? Because that's just what they do. They make dumb, esoteric jokes that you're not even supposed to really get. It's a language of irony upon irony that much of the media has seemed hopeless at interpreting these past few days.
Thus, a cryptic message about Tsarnaev's state of mind -- in earnest? in jest? -- would hardly be out of the norm. The arbitrariness of his statements implies a potentially sarcastic edge, but one which might typically be associated with something more along the lines of schoolwork or a break-up than a federal manhunt. After all, Tsarnaev was tweeting like a teen, not a terrorist.
And on the internet, teens hide. Genuine online expressions of feeling are rare amongst an older, "cooler" set like Tsarnaev's. Unlike, say, their younger Belieber counterparts.
Take that first tweet after the bombings. It's a classic -- albeit sensationalized -- example of the one-foot-in, one-foot-out emotional presence that so many young people currently employ on social media: a wry, personality-carving technique to posture to their friends and followers, while protecting themselves from fully exposing a more vulnerable, sensitive side.
The tweet is encrypted with an old Jay-Z song, "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)." Its tone would have been right in lockstep with those of Tsarnaev's friends -- acknowledging the emotional immediacy of the moment, yet maintaining that distance that pop-culture irony allows. A somewhat smarmy gesture of love, a hug with a wink.
The song itself uses the same ironic arm-twisting of genuine earnestness: Jay-Z cheekily reframes the love-sick wails of Bobby "Blue" Bland's original 1974 recording to reflect his own boastful disappointment in those who refuse to acknowledge his success. It's the words of a heartbroken sad-sack reappropriated as the condescending tsk-tsk-ing of a proud, indifferent king: earnest emotion utilized to communicate its very absence. A macho technique that Tsarnaev clearly felt safe using.
Many will comb through his tweets in the coming weeks looking for connections to be made. Some will be legitimate, others will not. A commentator on CNN referenced a particular tweet to a friend last year ("boston marathon isn't a good place to smoke tho" [sic]) as a possible message to conspirators. "Heart of the City" was on Jay-Z's album The Blueprint, which was released on September 11, 2001. Conspiracy theorists may see these as the clever winks of a psychopath, but the endemic layers of naive, social anxiety-driven irony and emulated rapper-like indifference amongst people Tsarnaev's age make the intentions of his public messages slippery, if not irrelevant.
It was thus very disheartening to read Charles M. Blow extrapolating such a dark heaviness from some of Tsarnaev's more inane tweets in the New York Times. Perhaps a victim of a social media generational gap, Mr. Blow vastly underestimated Tsnarnaev's clear frequent desire for random, whimsical meaninglessness. Tweeting "Idk why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job" hardly makes him a definitive 9/11 Truther, as Mr. Blow asserts. It could just as easily have been a total mockery of truther philosophy, a sarcastic indictment of idiocy.
Likewise, Tsnarnaev's tweet "Just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching my car into reverse and driving away from the accident" is not in fact an ominous reference to crime or a hit-and-run he may have committed, as Blow infers. It's a deadpan joke, a parody of a popular advertising slogan ("Just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.").
The meaning here isn't in what's said, it's in what's left unsaid. Like so many young people, Tsarnaev used Twitter as a mask. His motives for violence may crystallize as investigations progress, but his online presence will likely remain a blown out, sensationalized version of an all-too-familiar mystery of intimate identity, a shroud shared by so many these days. Yes, young people are more connected than ever before, but they are also far less sincere.
Bleeding out, hungry and dazed after fleeing that gigantic firefight, Dzokhar -- @j_tsar -- may have sought refuge under the tarp of a small boat. But he couldn't hide forever.