A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone had the execrable taste to put the Boston Marathon Bomber on the cover, making him look just like a Semitic version of Justin Beiber. Since I have very little respect for a magazine that essentially ambushed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, proselytizes for stoners and portrays Sarah Palin as a slut, I wasn't really surprised. Disgusted maybe, but not surprised.
Still, how annoyed can you get at a publication that has pretensions of grandeur but is, at its black little heart, Teen Beat on steroids? I cheered the retail outlets that refused to carry the issue with Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover and gave a high five to several of my acquaintances who actually cancelled their subscriptions. Then I moved on.
It didn't occur to me that there was something sinister about the incident, until this past Wednesday when I checked out the front page of the New York Times and found a sympathetic story about Bradley Manning. The authors went to a great deal of trouble to "humanize" the man who released thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks founder (and international coward) Julian Assange, whose last name is so exquisitely fitting.
Here is how they began: "Feeling outcast and alone in Iraq, Bradley Manning, then a 22-year-old Army private, turned to the Internet for solace in early 2010, wanting to share with the world what he saw as the unconscionable horrors of war, an act that resulted in what military prosecutors called one of the greatest betrayals in the nation's history."
If you did not know that you were reading a news report, you could seriously believe from the flowery language ("solace?" Really?) that this was either a majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy or the latest installment in the "Twilight" series. This obvious and awkwardly-written attempt to curry sympathy for a man who jeopardized the lives of countless military personnel would have been laughable had it not represented a disturbing trend in the national media: the willingness to empathize with criminals.
Rolling Stone runs a feature on the degeneration of a cool, dope-smoking young wrestler who was as Americanized as your average Chechnyan emigre into a zombie-like follower of radical Islam and turns it into a cautionary tale. We are somehow supposed to weep for this poor boy who was given every damn thing that our immigration system provides including a shot a U.S. citizenship and say "how could we have made a difference in his life?" This reflexive soul-searching, this shifting of the blame from the perpetrator to the bystanders and -- much worse -- victims is obscene.
But we do it all the time. Sometimes we do it when our cities explode in gunfire and we need a scapegoat. We don't blame the guy holding the gun. We blame the guy who made the gun, or the one who sold the gun, or the one who passed the law making it easier to get the gun, or the one who didn't provide a free breakfast for the shooter. I've pretty much gotten used to that particular reaction.
What I haven't gotten used to is the idea that no matter how heinous a crime or how despicable a person, we reflexively refuse to acknowledge that some people have no justification for what they've done. They are just evil.
Bradley Manning is not necessarily evil, although I'm fairly certain he was in the celestial lunchroom when God was handing out consciences. He comes off as a whiny, self-centered little toad who was conflicted about his sexuality, angered by the Army's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, offended that he was actually treated like a lower-level enlistee as opposed to an officer and desperately in search of friends. Under other circumstances, you could feel sorry for someone who felt marginalized. Under these circumstances, you can only shake your head and wonder how in the world he ever made it through boot camp.
Bradley Manning was not convicted of the most serious charge against him, aiding the enemy. Not being an expert in military law, I can't say whether the judge's determination was overly generous or justified by the facts of the case. Still, he was convicted of leaking classified information, including information that could have put both military and foreign service employees living abroad in great danger. The young gay man who resented the military for forcing him to hide his sexuality might very well have exposed other gay soldiers to extreme danger in countries where not having marriage equality is the least of your problems.
But we're supposed to feel sorry for him. We're also supposed to have a soft spot in our hearts for Dzokhar Tsarnaev because he was torn between a family that clung to antiquated customs, a homicidal brother, and an American society that apparently didn't do enough to make him feel welcome.
Give me a break. Let's save our sympathy for the innocent.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.