It was hard not to think of all this—of the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so many burials, and of course of “Antigone”—as I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s unburied body over the past few weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant them—to “unbury the body.” I thought of Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens, be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see all humans as “brothers,” whatever the evil they have done.
This final point is worth lingering over just now. The last of the many articles I’ve read about the strange odyssey of Tsarnaev’s body was about the reactions of the residents of the small Virginia town where it was, finally, buried. “What do you do when a monster is buried just down the street?” the subhead asked. The sensationalist diction, the word “monster,” I realized, is the problem—and brings you to the deep meaning of Martha Mullen’s gesture, and of Antigone’s argument, too. There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).
Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Lessons of Greek Tragedy. A profound essay by Daniel Mendelsohn.