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The Tsarnaev Trial Is Blowing up Boston All Over Again

Everyone knows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was one of the brothers behind the horrific Boston Marathon bombing, so why do we need to revisit the brutal facts of this case again?
Photo via Flickr user Roberto Ciucci

On April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers' ugly bombs ripped open the heart of my city. And now, after our historically brutal winter, the trial of the surviving younger brother is tearing at us again. Instead of enacting justice in the theater we call a courtroom, this trial seems to merely be dusting off old trauma, unnecessarily reopening a wound that had only just begun to close.

Is every trial really necessary? Is this one?


You know what happened: Two half-Chechen immigrants, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, placed backpacks filled with gunpowder, pressure cookers, and ball bearings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three, maiming or injuring 264, and scarring the region. The brothers set off the bombs two hours after the lead runners had come in, which meant that they hit the largest possible number of ordinary people cheering for families and friends. They jerry-rigged these bombs to leave infections and pain for years in those who survived. In the pictures that we've seen far too many times, and now again in the surveillance videos, you can see Dzhokhar, the brother now on trial, place his backpack coldly next to a family with three small children, one of whom died and another of whom lost a leg and barely survived. Three days later, all of us in the metropolitan region woke up in lockdown, asked to stay in our houses as police searched for Dzhokhar after he escaped an early morning firefight and hid nearby.

What you might not know is that targeting the Boston Marathon was, for us, as pointedly symbolic a strike at local civic life as the 9/11 attacks were assaults on world trade in New York City and US military power in Washington, DC. The Tsarnaevs had lived here since 2002—Dzhokhar became a citizen on, of all days, September 11, 2012—so they knew that the Marathon is Boston's national holiday, our rite of spring. This oddball state holiday, nominally called Patriots' Day, on paper commemorates the battles of Concord and Lexington (and surely someone goes to those reenactments, although I don't know who). But in real life, it's a day off for the Marathon, a day we gather as a community, an ummah of our own. It's our celebration of having emerged from the long, dark tunnel of winter, a civic heartbeat in which everyday people rise above their everyday lives. I can't think of anyone I know who hasn't gone to see it—or run in it—once, twice, or many times.


You find a spot somewhere along the 26.2 miles and scream yourself hoarse for an hour or more, cheering not so much for the superhuman frontrunners as for the stark-raving amateurs, for everybody's mother or cousin or buddy who by sheer force of will endure the impossible. Maybe you hand out cups of water. Maybe you ring bells or wave encouraging signs or hold up a picture of some friend who's running it. Maybe you squeeze into the jammed and narrow city streets as one of the 30,000 fans leaving Boston's house of worship, Fenway Park, when the Red Sox game lets out in the afternoon, putting you shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of Marathon fans and runners. Even if you're not out there at the Marathon, it occupies some corner of your mind while driving or walking or shopping or working. You get texts from family or friends there, or pings from the Globe or Herald telling you which Kenyan won this year and how close the nearest American was. With the Marathon we celebrate being together and alive.

Or at least we did until the Tsarnaevs' bombs rebranded it as a day of death.

Afterwards we came together under the banner of "Boston Strong"—yes, often with posters including a Red Sox logo, symbol of our local religion—precisely because we felt so vulnerable and weak. We gathered in Fenway Park for the next game, where we roared approval when our beloved slugger David Ortiz, Big Papi, declared that the bombers would never win because "this is our fucking city." Together we cried.


Even if you're not out there at the Marathon, it occupies some corner of your mind while driving or walking or shopping or working.

With Dzhokhar on trial, all that is coming back. And why?

"Do I really need to hear again from the man who held his son in his arms while he died?" one Harvard communications director asked me. "I know what he did. I just want it over."

A social worker picking up her kids after school told me she's trying to just glance at the headlines each night, that she can't afford to get sucked back in; she just wants Dzhokhar punished in whatever way he most dreads.

I haven't seen anyone post articles about the trial on Facebook or tweet them out, which tells you how little we want to chew all this over yet again. We've already thought about how this war-zone refugee from a disastrously chaotic and stricken family found a home in the People's Republic of Cambridge, where he was embraced by the high school's culture of diversity and respect, books and sports—and how he rejected those ideals, blowing up his city for an absurd cause on which he could displace his disastrous family's misery. In a media-saturated world where we can look up every detail online, why drag it out again?

In a democracy, a trial is supposed to do many things. It's a meeting of adversaries in battle, a theater of war in which jousting is channeled via words instead of weapons. It's an attempt to ferret out a plausible truth from competing interpretations of the facts. It's a display of the rule of law, in which the state must reveal its evidence to ordinary citizens who get to decide whether punishment is justified. It's a performance in which public and private passions are dramatized and, in theory, resolved—a catharsis to purify and purge emotions harmful to the body politic. More recently, trials are supposed to offer "closure," that new-age therapy goal, for those harmed by the crime. Some trials metastasize beyond these important goals and become circus rather than drama, with media personages circling like the ringmaster of the Hunger Games, voyeuristically offering up twisted personalities and individual misery for viewers' consumption. Which one is this?


And part of what makes Boston strong is that most of us agree that Dzhokhar should not be killed in our name.

Of course, I can't speak for the immediate victims: Their lives were shattered and will never be put back the way they were before. I can't speak for the cops and nurses and firefighters and doctors and all the others who helped scrape tattered bodies back to life. Nothing I write, nothing that the rest of Boston thinks or feels, can compare with that. Perhaps for them this trial does enact justice and finality, putting what happened in some meaningful order, ending in sentencing.

But this trial—any trial—is not only for them. Terrorism, perhaps even more than any other crime, has secondary victims: not just the innocents maimed and killed, but the lacerated community all around. And it's traumatic to hear again about victims gripping their own organs so as not to bleed to death, or seeing jagged bones sticking up out of their own shredded bodies. Watching the surveillance videos that track him callously buying milk and going to the gym is creepy, but did anyone think that a young man dissociated enough to place a bomb right beside three small children would be shocked and sobbing over his deeds an hour later? Do we have to be reminded that, three days later, the Tsarnaev brothers carjacked a man who escaped when they stopped at a pair of Memorial Drive gas stations that used to be unremarkable reference points on the Charles River? We know.


This trial isn't about determining the facts. The jury, those citizen witnesses, are not being asked to judge not whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did it—his lawyer admitted that in the first 15 minutes, and is scarcely questioning any witnesses--but whether he was a foolish young man misled by his thug older brother who had dipped in and out of crime, or he himself did it coldly and with enough malice that he deserves to be put to death.

And part of what makes Boston strong is that most of us agree that Dzhokhar should not be killed in our name. Massachusetts has no death penalty because we're against it. Bostonians oppose the death penalty even for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 57 to 33 percent. It took forever to select a jury from the 1,373 people that the New York Times reports were in the initial pool, in part because who could possibly be impartial after media saturation made visible his guilt—and in part because it was hard to find a Boston-area jury willing to execute anyone, even an unforgiven (and perhaps unforgivable) Marathon bomber.

This trial, in other words, teeters on the verge of being an unnecessary and gruesome circus. According to CNN, the Justice Department refused a plea deal in which Tsarnaev would acknowledge guilt to escape the death penalty. But why? That would have upheld the rule of law. That would have been the civilized antidote to the Tsarnaevs' explosion of mayhem and pointless rage.

That would have kept Boston strong—instead of letting the Tsarnaevs' crimes wound us yet again.

E.J. Graff is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Follow her on Twitter.