The chapter on the hunt for the Boston marathon bombing suspects closed Friday night, with the death of suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the apprehension his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The legal battle for his fate is just beginning – with the charges filed this week.
Also just beginning is how pop culture will grapple with last week's events, which have earned – at least in some minds – the designation of first successful terrorist attack on America soil since 9/11. In the first hours and days after Monday's explosions, initial attempts were made: Boston museums waived their admission fees; network execs pulled television episodes deemed insensitive to the new post-Patriots' Day realities; already, there is speculation on how Massachusetts native Conan O'Brien will handle this weekend's White House Correspondent's Dinner. But those are just band-aids for much deeper wounds. What about the new art that will be created in response to happened on the finish line and after?
Provocateur musician Amanda Palmer tried Sunday. Regardless of whether or not "a poem for dzhokhar" was the first original creative offering, it's thus far the most controversial. Posted to Palmer's blog, it imagined the perspective of the younger bombing suspect:
you don't know how things could change so incredibly fast.
you don't know how to make something, but the instructions are on the internet.
you don't know how to make sense of this massive parade.
you don't know how to believe anyone anymore.
"For her to be out of the box so quickly and calling attention to herself is really narcissistic," says Jeffrey Melnick, noting that she posted her poem just as the first victims' funerals were being held. Melnick, author of "9/11 Culture: America Under Construction," is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts—Boston and has direct ties to the Cambridge community in which Dzhokhar grew up.
The fuss will likely be short-lived, but her offense is reminiscent of the controversy stirred by Martin Amis – who wrote often about Sept. 11 , eventually turning his stories into a book – in a 2006 "New Yorker" fiction piece "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta."
Palmer's poem will also likely be forgotten, as Sept. 11 took years for artists to process. Whether any clear narratives truly emerged is up for debate.
The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in her epic 10th anniversary essay on the topic:
Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture – like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts – such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations, and with unrelated forces like technology, which gave us the social media revolution of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.
What did emerge with some permanence seemed to deal the world after Sept. 11 – so called, 9/12 art – outliving the works dealt with that fateful day, "I think what's more interesting than movies that are explicitly about 9/11 — which I don't think anyone is really talking about anymore, like "United 93" or "World Trade Center" — are the films that are infused with it," says Melnick, citing "25th Hour," "Munich" and "V for Vendetta" as being examples of such.
Months after Kakatuni essay, the killing of Osama bin Laden brought a certain closure that lent new ways for pop culture to tackle post Sept. 11 America. "SEAL Team Six" took a celebratory but forgettable approach to the hunt for bin Laden, while "Zero Dark Thirty's" more nuanced understanding make it a more permanent exploration of how Sept. 11 changed America.
In some ways that moment – that victory over the perpetrators – came much more quickly for the Boston marathon attack, as finding and apprehending of the suspects took less than week, not the years it took after Sept. 11. That doesn't mean culture's exploration of the tragedy will be equally as swift, particularly for Boston, which occupies its own special place in American arts and entertainment.
"One thing I think Boston will have to reckon with is this ongoing legacy of residential segregation," says Melnick. New York Magazine, The New Yorker and the others have begun to explore Cambridge's role in producing the culprits, though doing so from an outsider perspective frustrates some within the Boston community, who say it is up to Boston to come up with its own conclusions.
"After this moment of comforting unity, that's the thing that Boston's going to have to reckon with, is how integrated is Boston, how comfortable of a place is it for newer arrivals," says Melnick. In the case of post Sept. 11 arts and culture, there was a "tension between mainstream media narrative and the bottom up, person-to-person narratives," according to Melnick, and one can expect no less of a reaction organic to Boston.Some on Twitter have already wished that Ben Affleck – who attended Dzhokhar's high school – make a movie about last week's event, but the tragedy might just hit too close to home for the actor/director, who usually focuses on more of Boston's mythic tales. Already Boston's music community – a burgeoning indie rock and hip-hop scene buoyed by the area's expansive student population – is responding with a mixtape project that includes of 130 bands, many of them local, rasing money for the tragedy's One Fund Boston.
Also complicating the Boston case – and perhaps what's most troubling about Palmer's attempt – is how we grow understand the perpetrators. "There's a lot of grown-ups who are trying to say what this 19-year-old must have felt, and I think that's always really dangerous, figuring out any teenager's mind, but particularly one who is really, extremely, upset, in a difficult place," says Melnick.Domestically raised and allegedly working alone, Dzhokhar – and even his older brother, assumed to be the leader in the plot – are no Osama bin Laden, or Muhammad Atta for that matter. "[People have] been saying 'terror attack' all along — and in my mind, I'm not clear yet that that's ultimately how we're are going to process it, particularly in the case of the younger guy," says Melnick, "Or whether it's going to seem like fitting the paradigm of a school shooter, and then we will have a whole different set of reference points" — less Kathryn Bigelow and more Gus Van Sant.
"That's going to be a big part of our work right now — to create analytical frameworks that help us make sense of somebody who doesn't already fit already existing categories," says Melnick.
It's not surprising that satirical publication The Onion, another early entry into how pop culture understands the Boston marathon bombing, avoided the question of the suspects all together. It chose to focus on a more innocuous – albeit minor, but memorable none the less – player in last Friday's man hunt saga: "Taylor Swift Now Dating Watertown Boat," it joked.