The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the sole surviving perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombings, took only thirty-three days. On April 8 a jury declared the twenty-one-year-old guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in recent American history; then, on May 8, they sentenced him to death. Many years will pass before Tsarnaev faces execution, assuming that he ever does; the victims, and the people of Boston, can now look forward to a long period of appeals, rulings, and maneuverings before his case achieves its denouement. Yet that didn’t stop politicians from immediately hailing the verdict as an opportunity to banish the case to the history books. “The ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime,” said US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families.” The mayor and governor both also invoked the word “closure” for survivors and families.
The fixation on “closure”—that distinctly American word—certainly has its positive aspects. Looking forward frees us to act. Yet the urge to “move along” comes at a cost. We can declare the past obsolete with all the decisiveness we can muster, but that doesn’t mean that it will cooperate. History has a way of sticking around no matter how much we attempt to exorcise it.
All terrorist attacks are appalling, but there is something uniquely disquieting about this particular one. The bombers seemed to be well-integrated immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They managed to build a small arsenal of homemade bombs without detection. Their intimate knowledge of their adopted city prompted them to target an event that is tightly bound up with Boston’s collective sense of self. And then there is the question of motives: Why did these two men, who come from a family that arrived in the United States with little devotion to Islam, gradually find themselves drawn toward jihadist ideology?
At 2:49 in the afternoon on April 15, 2013, a bomb exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A second, equally powerful blast followed twelve seconds later, one block farther up Boylston Street. The two explosions sent waves of shrapnel—ball bearings and nails that had been packed in the bombs to maximize casualties—scything through the dense crowd of spectators and runners. Three bystanders—twenty-nine-year-old Krystle Campbell, twenty-three-year-old Lu Lingzi, and eight-year-old Martin Richard—were killed outright. Of the at least 264 people injured, seventeen of them ultimately lost at least one leg in the attack. (The number of deaths could have easily been much higher, but the toll was almost certainly reduced by the large number of emergency workers who were already…
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