Leave Mrs. Tsarnaev Alone!
In one of the climactic scenes in the movie The Godfather, there's a quick set of cuts between violent murders and a Catholic christening. Mafiosi wives and mothers look on while their men's foul deeds play out elsewhere. At other points in the film, the wives of killers light their candles in church and pray.
Do we think: "What awful women?" Or maybe "what an awful religion?"
Try this for a plotline:
A woman is born to wealth and spends her early years in the meaningless pursuit of social status. Suddenly, she discovers a deep faith and piety and turns away from her earlier values. Instead of revealing designer dresses, her attire is now modest. She takes a humble job caring for the ill in their own homes.
Could be the start of one of the Lives of the Saints, yes? Maybe even Clare? Or if set in modern times, it's the start of a movie for the Hallmark or GMC cable channels.
Let's add a fact: She is brought to her new faith through the love of a man who becomes her husband. She is devoted not only to her faith but to her family and her daughter. Probably not the life of a Catholic saint, then. But still fodder for an uplifting movie.
It would be a rare American indeed who would not find as least parts of this narrative admirable. Even an atheist might nod in agreement as she turns from finding the next party to a life that is filled not only with religious meaning but with actions that manifest those new values.
Now let's add another fact: Her husband is Muslim. The modest clothing includes a hijab. And there goes the movie. There also goes, for many people, any presumption that could possibly be a positive story.
I am, of course, stealing from the headlines and from an account that we know has a terrible ending. To the extent that we can trust media accounts, this is the tale of Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Daughter of a pair of Yale grads, described by college friends as a "social butterfly," she turns away from a life of comfort into a life of Muslim piety. She works as a home health aide, caring for the sick. She is faithful to her husband and raises her daughter.
In the days after the bombing, as information about Russell filtered out, a lot of the chatterers wondered whether she had been brainwashed. Whether she had been abused. What else could explain someone turning from the life she had to where she ended up?
In the Washington Post, Melinda Henneberger wrote about how people she knows described that movement from free spirit into a hijab as a "debasement." Henneberger was also kind enough to quote a question I asked during a Facebook discussion of whether Russell sacrificed her "real identity" for the love of her husband.
Who are we to say whether she gave up her identity or found it? We don't live in her head. We can't assume we know why she made her choices. How much should whether she decided to wear a wimple or hijab or sheytl or bonnet make a difference in how we think about those choices?
Did she know what Tsarnaev was planning, if he was the man behind the bombings? That's a question for law enforcement. If she says she did not, she wouldn't be the first woman willfully blinding herself to her husband's terrible deeds. The Godfather is fiction. But it reflects some truths about the ways people operate. I don't think that most viewers of that film automatically condemn either the women or the church.
The latest news reports say that Russell will continue to cooperate with authorities. Maybe one day she'll choose to tell her story publicly. She owes the world -- or at least the police -- an explanation for what she knew and did not know about the Boston bombing.
But about her religious choices, not as much.