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 on the scene to help with the event.)
There were no immediate clues about the motives or the identities of the bombers. Three days went by, leaving the city in a palpable state of confusion and fear, until police finally presented the public with photos of the two most probable suspects. The images had been culled from surveillance footage of the crime scenes in the moments before the bombings.
Some of those who saw the photos were struck by the suspects’ resemblance to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two brothers who had immigrated to Boston with their families some years earlier from the former Soviet Union. In the hours that followed the bombing, the Tsarnaev brothers, who had spent the time immediately after the bombing apparently going quietly about their ordinary routines, ambushed and shot Sean Collier, a young campus policeman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It seems that they were trying to steal his gun, but they didn’t manage to unlock his holster, so they continued on without it. Apparently planning to escape the city and continue their attacks elsewhere, they hijacked a car and took the driver with them. He later related that a pistol-wielding Tamerlan had asked him if he’d heard about the bombing. When the driver said that he had, Tamerlan responded: “I did that. And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”
Shortly after, the driver managed to escape during a stop at a gas station and tipped off the police, prompting a citywide chase that culminated in a gun battle between the brothers and police in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Tamerlan was shot and wounded several times, but he actually was killed by his own brother, who drove over his prostrate body while trying to get away. Dzhokhar’s escape prompted local officials to issue an unprecedented “shelter in place” order that shut down the entire city for a day. Late on the evening of April 19, the younger Tsarnaev was discovered hiding in a boat parked in the backyard of a house in Watertown. Bleeding heavily from several bullet wounds, he was taken into custody by Boston police.
At the trial of the now twenty-one-year-old Dzhokhar, the jurors found him guilty on thirty counts, including conspiracy and the use of a weapon of mass destruction; seventeen of them carried the death penalty. Tsarnaev’s defense team essentially conceded his guilt, and concentrated their energies instead on preventing a death sentence in the penalty phase of the trial. (Massachusetts does not allow capital punishment, but Tsarnaev was charged under federal law, which allows for it.) His lawyers made the case that he was merely a pawn, a submissive follower under the sway of his dominating older brother, who was, as near as we can tell, the guiding force in the conspiracy. The jurors, however, were not prepared to accept the argument that this minimized Dzhokhar’s personal responsibility. They deliberated for only fourteen and a half hours before reaching a verdict.
From their own twisted point of view, the bombers couldn’t have picked a better target. As Scott Helman and Jenna Russell explain in their book Long Mile Home, the Boston Marathon isn’t just another sporting event. Marathon Monday is an annual ritual that is tightly connected with Boston’s self-image:
The day typically kicks off spring break for public school students statewide. It heralds the arrival of a hard-earned spring. It brings a special morning game for the beloved Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. It’s a chance to breathe in a place that defines high-strung, a chance for Boston to put aside, at least for a moment, its tribalism and fractiousness, to welcome outsiders to a town not always known for its hospitality.
Helman and Russell, whose account incorporates much of the reporting from their colleagues at the Boston Globe that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for news reporting, offer the most vivid and moving account of the marathon bombings that anyone has given so far. Though their story includes a relatively detailed portrait of the Tsarnaev brothers, the authors devote far more space to the victims, their families, and a wide-ranging assortment of others who experienced that day at first hand. Dr. David King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, reported to work soon after completing the marathon himself, and soon confronted a flood of injuries disturbingly reminiscent of his days as an army reservist in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heather Abbott, a genial office worker from Newport, Rhode Island, lost a leg in the bombing, then faced the ordeal of rehabilitation and adaptation to a life brutally transformed. Shana Cottone, a young Boston police officer with a particular sympathy for underdogs, found herself assisting another young woman whose leg was torn off in the blast. Searching in vain for an ambulance amid the chaos, she and other first responders used a police paddy wagon to bring the woman and another victim to the emergency room. (Both survived.)
Helman and Russell are keen to share tales of resilience and redemption, stories that show how their beloved Boston bounced back from the trauma of a Marathon Day gone terribly wrong. It may have seemed predictable that within days of the bombing two college students began printing T-shirts with the motto “Boston Strong.” But their initiative soon turned into a charitable foundation that, within just a few months, had collected $60 million for the victims—funds that were urgently needed by the survivors, not least because of the extraordinarily high costs of amputee rehabilitation. A fifty-eight-year-old carpenter became the unofficial custodian of a spontaneous memorial that sprang up not far from the site of the attack:
People brought him cups of hot coffee and fresh rolls of tape. They passed him cash and told him to buy what was needed: more flowers, more candles, sheets of plastic to cover the place when it rained. He served at their will: they had made the place together. It was hard to explain what it meant or why it mattered, but one visitor, Sally Graham of Dorchester, came close: “In some ways, it says to me [that] good does outweigh evil.”
In less capable hands such accounts could have easily lapsed into saccharine boosterism, but the Globe journalists know what they’re doing, and their scrupulous reporting also captures many of the lingering shadows. Many months after the terrible day, Shana Cottone, the young police officer, still feels its reverberations: “It was like that now: a well of anxiety lay hidden within her, and without warning her reflexes could tap it,” the authors write. “The places that had once felt safe didn’t anymore.” Without going into intrusive detail, Helman and Russell manage to convey the pain of the family of Krystle Campbell, a gregarious and much-loved restaurant manager. Describing a 2014 memorial ceremony on the first anniversary of the bombing, the authors write: “Krystle’s parents, Billy and Patty, stood beside them, a year of suffering etched into their faces.”
All of which leaves the question: Why did any of this have to happen in the first place? The answer lies with the bombers. The prosecutors in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case offered a relatively straightforward explanation: the two brothers were fanatical jihadists who became “self-radicalized” over the Internet and followed al-Qaeda’s call to terrorize the United States population in retaliation for America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There is plenty of evidence to support this account. Both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, as we now know, were avid consumers of jihadist websites and videos; Tamerlan appears to have obtained bomb-making instructions from the al-Qaeda online magazine Inspire, a copy of which was later found on his hard drive. In 2011 the Russian security services alerted their American counterparts that Tamerlan was suspected of contacting known jihadists in Russia—though the cursory FBI investigation that followed yielded nothing notable. A year later the Russians themselves even allowed him to travel to Dagestan, where he proceeded to seek out members of a local Islamist group. And when Dzhokhar was finally captured, police discovered on the inside of the boat in which he was hiding a diatribe against America’s wars in the Islamic world.
I have no reason to doubt that all of this is true. Yet it is hard to escape the sense that the Tsarnaev brothers didn’t take entirely naturally to their role as self-anointed holy warriors. Their family showed little outward interest in religion until just a few years before the attacks. Those who knew the Tsarnaevs well say that Zubeidat, the boys’ mother, began to act like an observant Muslim only around 2010. This suggests that her sons’ “self-radicalization” was rather rapid, and that it accelerated during a period when America was winding down its military presence in South Asia and the Middle East.
Right up until the bombing, Dzhokhar was known to his college friends primarily as a small-time drug dealer who spoke little of politics or religion. His older brother, who had once dreamed of boxing in the Olympics for the United States, was somewhat more conspicuous in his adoption of the practice of an observant Salafi Muslim, though in a distinctly idiosyncratic fashion. He attracted attention in his Cambridge mosque by twice disrupting services after prayer leaders made passing references to Martin Luther King Day and Thanksgiving, holidays that have minimal religious content. (None of the other worshipers seems to have taken offense at the imam’s comments; the mosque showed Tamerlan the door.)
During his trip to Dagestan he drew attention by donning a large shirt of the kind usually worn in Pakistan, and also slicking his hair back with oil and daubing kohl under his eyes—a mode of self-presentation utterly at odds with the traditional Caucasian version of Islam. His Dagestani friends seem to have regarded his antics with a mixture of caution and ill-suppressed mockery. None of this, at any rate, bespeaks the tradecraft of a diehard conspirator. (By way of comparison, the September 11 hijackers were urged by their handlers to wear Western clothing and shave off their beards in order to avoid notice.)
What are we to make of the Tsarnaevs’ behavior? Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev really a zealous terrorist, a man of deep and vengeful religious convictions? Or was his Islamism something more of an alibi, an ideological justification for his rage at a world that had left him in the lurch? Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, offers the most comprehensive account of the Tsarnaev brothers to date and comes to a surprisingly matter-of-fact conclusion: terrorists simply do what they do, and that’s pretty much all there is to it:
In fact, I can and do believe that not only Tamerlan but [Dzhokhar] as well could have made a rational choice—that is, a choice consistent with their values and their understanding of causal relationships—and, as a result of that choice, set off bombs that killed three people and injured at least 264.
She goes on to criticize American law enforcement’s obsession with “radicalization”—the notion that a person becomes a terrorist “by way of identifiable stages of adopting increasingly radical ideas, until he or she is finally radicalized into terrorist action.” She continues:
Common sense and human experience show that only a small minority of people who subscribe to radical ideas—even the kinds of radical ideas that justify and promote violence—actually engage in violence. Research also shows that some terrorists do not hold strong political or ideological beliefs…. The possibility that [the brothers’] actions were driven by simple ideas acquired without any concerted outside help, that, as Gadzhiev said, “Tamerlan simply objected to US foreign policy” like hundreds of thousands of other people but, unlike the overwhelming majority of them, decided to use a bomb to express his opposition—this terrifyingly simple idea was never on the table.
I’m inclined to agree with Gessen on much of this. As she notes elsewhere, many terrorists are indeed outwardly “ordinary” people, far from the crazed dead-enders of popular imagination. You don’t have to be suicidally depressed to become a suicide bomber. (Indeed, a lot of the research suggests that more than a few terrorists are what might pass for officer material in many armies: educated, idealistic, highly disciplined.) Yet such observations don’t do much to help us in explaining what tips the members of this small minority over the line into violent action. What, indeed, separated Tamerlan Tsarnaev from the “hundreds of thousands of other people” who object to US foreign policy without resorting to bombing innocents to express their views? Gessen never really attempts a serious answer.
Nor does she seem to be prepared to ask questions that might prompt her to revise her views. She strongly objects to Globe reporting that suggests that Tamerlan was mentally ill: “The diagnosis not only was based on ephemeral evidence but was actually counterfactual: terrorism experts generally agree that a firm grip on reality is required to carry out a secret plot of any complexity.” Tamerlan couldn’t have heard voices, in other words, because real terrorists aren’t mentally ill. Yet contrary to what Gessen claims, Helman and Russell, working from their colleagues’ meticulous interviewing, offer no “diagnosis” of any kind; they note merely that Tamerlan “heard voices,” and they have two sources for this, not one, as Gessen claims.
She doesn’t seem to have gone to the trouble to ask either source about the claim—presumably because she knew in advance that they couldn’t be right. This is not a good sign in a reporter. During an interview with one of Tamerlan’s Islamist friends in Dagestan, Gessen makes a point of not asking any questions about his rumored contacts with local insurgents. Why? “Because, I said, I saw no credence to the rumors—an impression my interlocutor clearly shared.” Such diffidence seems out of place, given the magnitude of the issues at hand.
This is a pity, and her book suffers for it. Gessen actually does get around to some useful reporting at times, above all when it comes to tracing the Tsarnaevs’ peripatetic life in the former Soviet Union in the years before they decided to emigrate to America. She finds, for example, that the brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, never actually served as a prosecutor in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, as the family liked to claim. She devotes many pages to the story of Dzhokhar’s hapless college roommates, whose clumsy attempts to dispose of their friend’s belongings after the bombing put them in the crosshairs of a harsh police response; and she gives a sharp account of the mysterious death of Tamerlan’s friend Ibragim Todashev at the hands of the FBI.
But Gessen’s portrait of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar ultimately doesn’t go that much farther than the one offered by Helman and Russell. She has a very strong authorial voice, and she never hesitates to inject herself into the story, yet the book feels oddly perfunctory, as if her heart wasn’t really in it. Her account of the bombing is dispatched in a two-sentence paragraph.
But perhaps this is hair-splitting. The two books discussed here will almost certainly not be the end of the story: the continuing saga of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s legal case will surely see to that. The controversy over his fate will be compounded by the fact that only 15 percent of Bostonians approve of the death penalty. Those who oppose it include, most movingly, the family of Martin Richard, whose sister lost a leg in the attack and whose parents suffered wounds of their own. In a commentary published in the Boston Globe last month, Bill and Denise Richard explained why they find it hard to follow the demands to move on to other matters. “As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours,” they wrote. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.” They make their readers hope that they, and the others who still live in the shadow of that terrible day, can find a way to some sort of peace.