Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving of two accused terrorist brothers, showed up to court Wednesday to plead not guilty to 30 criminal counts for setting off two bombs at the Boston marathon. To make the already-unsettling occasion even uglier, he was greeted by a throng of adoring fans, mostly young women who constitute the “Free Jahar” movement, named after a nickname he adopted to make his name easier for native English speakers to pronounce. Conspiracy theorists pop up after every terrorist incident—and sometimes just after weather incidents—but what makes the “Free Jahar” crew unusual is that they appear to be mainly young women.
Tsarnaev’s supporters insist that they have purely intellectual reasons for supporting the young man accused of causing three deaths and 14 amputations. They believe the government set him up. But they sure do spend a lot of time sharing pictures of him on Tumblr, squealing over any behavior of his that can be construed as “cute,” and clucking maternally over his well being. On Wednesday, outrage flared up in “Free Jahar” circles because of the unflattering portrayal of him in the court illustrations. The whole thing feels uncomfortably like a Justin Bieber fan squee—bad enough when it’s for Bieber, but even worse for someone who appears to be a remorseless killer.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about this. Every reasonably good-looking, famous criminal can count on getting a fan club of excitable women who justify their affections by denying his guilt or rationalizing his crimes—or both, since we’re not talking about rational people here. Olympian Oscar Pistorius, accused of murdering his girlfriend, has a devoted fan base that swings between claiming he was framed and hinting that his victim had it coming. Ted Bundy had scores of groupies, and even managed to marry one of them. And there are so many rabid fans of the violent Chris Brown (notably, not a killer) that even the object of their affection has asked them to cool it with the constant haranguing of whoever he’s currently beefing with.
So what’s in it for the women? I think the answer is in the fantasy many women have of loving a dangerous man who then, by virtue of this love, eventually reveals a gentleness he doesn’t show the rest of the world. It’s the old “my love tamed the dangerous beast” fairy tale of romance novels and Disney movies. Pining after convicted or sure-to-be-convicted criminals adds another layer of fantasy to the whole thing. In 2010, Barbie Latza Nadeau interviewed author Sheila Isenberg, author of Women Who Love Men Who Kill, and Isenberg explained how the fantasy of getting attention from a famous murderer is easier to realize than the fantasy of attention from other celebrities:
Women and men who are desperate for attention also find captive criminals easier to love. Isenberg notes that real celebrities are less likely to respond to fan mail than someone in prison, making it easier to actually develop a relationship with the often-dangerous criminals. “Any guy sitting in jail or on death row will focus attention out of boredom,” she says. “But that romantic focus is like a blazing light to some women.”
In other words, if you crush on Brad Pitt or Justin Timberlake, they are too busy living their glamorous lives to think about you. But if you support an otherwise hated person, you can be more assured that they might give you the attention you crave. In a society that cherishes fame above nearly all other qualities, that’s probably as close as most women are going to get to it.