Rolling Stone's Portrait of an Affable Psychopath


Much of the brouhaha about Rolling Stone's piece on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has centered on the rockstar-style photo of the bomber on the cover.

But that's not the only thing wrong with the article. Take the text, which is an earnest attempt to answer the question: How could a good boy like Dzhokhar go so bad? What secret sorrow, what family troubles or school troubles or other troubles led a young man universally described as unusually charming, magnetic, easygoing, laid-back, cool, and happy-go-lucky to become an Islamic terrorist murderer?

The article fails abysmally to answer the question, although along the way it offers quite a bit of background information about the boy and then the young man it refers to as Jahar, as most of his friends did. But perhaps the author is asking the wrong question. Maybe there's not that much to explain or understand, if one considers the possibility that the charismatic Dzohkhar may in fact be a psychopath.

How could that be? Despite a common popular misconception that psychopaths are a gloomy sort, not the type of people you'd take to if you were to meet them, that doesn't really describe the majority of them. The classic text on the subject, The Mask of Sanity, was written in 1941 by psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley. That's a long time ago, but the work holds up very well today because although we can describe psychopathy, we have learned very little more about its etiology than was known in Cleckley's time. Here's his description of the psychopath's "mask":

...[T]he [psychopath's] central personality...[is] covered over by...a perfect mask of genuine sanity, a flawless surface indicative in every respect of robust mental health. .. [T]hose called psychopaths are very sharply characterized by the lack of anxiety (remorse, uneasy anticipation, apprehensive scrupulousness, the sense of being under stress or strain)...

It is my opinion that when the typical psychopath...occasionally commits a major deed of violence, it is usually a casual act done not from tremendous passion or as a result of plans persistently followed with earnest compelling fervor. There is less to indicate excessively violent rage than a relatively weak emotion breaking through even weaker restraints.

Reading Cleckley, and then reading the Rolling Stone piece, one can't help but be struck by the similarity between his friends' descriptions of Dzhokhar and Cleckley's descriptions of psychopaths. Many of Dzhokhar's friends were deeply puzzled by the cool, chill, laid-back Jahar's participation in the bombing, and theorized that his more conventionally depressed, angry, and jihadi brother Tamerlan must have "turned" him or controlled or brainwashed him in some way to have accounted for Dzhokhar's going along with such a violent and cold-blooded act.