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Ruth Marcus: The terrorist next door

Ruth Marcus: The terrorist next door Modified: April 24, 2013 at 7:54 am •  Published: April 24, 2013

WASHINGTON — The bomber went to prom.

OK, alleged bomber. As to those who believe the definite article is missing from the sentence above — the prom — my teenage daughters inform me that phrasing is irredeemably antiquated.

Which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev probably knew. Indeed, the intriguing — the chilling — aspect of this 19-year-old is his seeming normalcy.

They are different crimes, spawned by different demons. Yet the Boston bombing and the shootings — at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, the list goes on — somehow meld together.

But with a difference. Look at the pictures of Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner, Seung-Hui Cho, and you can imagine the craziness, the disaffection, the just-not-rightness.

Look at Tsarnaev and you see … a regular-looking kid, one who — to outside appearances — had, like generations of immigrants before him, assimilated quickly and seamlessly. If he smoked pot, he also volunteered with the Best Buddies program and earned a college scholarship.

“He was just this scrawny little kid who was always giggling and happy,” Juliette Terry, 20, an elementary school friend and part of a group with whom he attended prom, told The Wall Street Journal. “I can’t remember him saying a mean word in his life.”

Larry Aaronson, a high school teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, told The Boston Globe, “If someone were to ask me what this kid is like, I would say that he had a heart of gold. He was as gracious as possible.”

Those are not the comments you would hear about the school shooters. They had histories of psychiatric problems, previous brushes with the law. Their teachers and classmates understood something was off. When the shootings occurred, those who knew them, or had encountered them, instantly suspected the culprit.

At Virginia Tech, poet Nikki Giovanni insisted that Cho be removed from her class after exhibiting “menacing” behavior, “intimidating” writing and a “mean streak.” In Tucson, Lynda Sorenson, who took an algebra class with Loughner, wrote emails before the shooting about “a mentally unstable person in the class who scares the living crap out of me” and describing how she would “sit by the door with my purse handy,” in case he started shooting.

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