Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev found guilty
On April 6, surviving Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty of all 30 counts, 17 of which may carry the death penalty. Nearly two years since the April 15, 2013, bombing and subsequent manhunt, which injured 280 and killed four, debate rages over motive, law enforcement procedure, intelligence failures and the prospect of state execution.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and his elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, both ethnically Chechen Muslims, autonomously built pressure cooker bombs and planned the attack using al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's online English language glossy magazine Inspire. The two bombs were detonated remotely near the marathon finish line 13 seconds apart. The brothers evaded capture until a shooting on April 18, 2013, followed by a final manhunt on April 19, 2013, four days after the bombing.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev survived to be captured, and was immediately questioned for 16 hours. Subsequently read his Miranda rights, the admissibility of prior testimony is a matter of controversy. Despite a call for him to be tried as an enemy combatant, prominent legal scholars including Alan Dershowitz successfully argued that doing so would jeopardize the case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as it has for many remaining Guantanamo Bay inmates, and the federal court system was judged sufficient to handle Dzhokhar's case.
Immediately following the bombing, questions about handling of intelligence were raised in the media. As in the cases of the underwear bomber (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), the shoe bomber (Richard Reid), the Times Square bomber (Faisal Shahzad), the 2009 Fort Hood shooter (Nidal Malik Hasan) and a few others, it seems hints arising from the Tsarnaev brothers' not exactly stealthy activities were either ignored or not connected. Indeed, it was revealed that Russian intelligence services had even warned the FBI about the Tsarnaev brothers. There is now an alarming disconnect between two types of home-grown terror attacks. In the first, a handful of disaffected American citizens have successfully advanced plots to execution, often harming or even killing American civilians. In the second, dozens of plots funded and instigated by paid FBI informants have successfully entrapped financially desperate and/or mentally ill men in hastily written anti-terrorism legislation. Naturally these "plots," which are actually exploiting society's weakest members for PR and pose no threat to security, have been disrupted "in the nick of time."
In the investigation after the Boston marathon bombings, the FBI shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, a friend of the Tsarnaev brothers, during an interrogation in Florida. It has been suggested that Ibragim confessed to, and implicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in, a triple homicide that occurred in Waltham, Massachusetts, on Sept. 11, 2011. No further evidence has emerged, however.
The number of Americans killed and injured during terrorist attacks over the last 30 years pales in comparison to those killed in vehicle accidents, home shootings, police shootings, food poisonings, lightning strikes, livestock accidents, as soldiers fighting overseas, etc. The heightened violence and mayhem combined with our free and open press serve to greatly amplify the terror and horror, which is precisely why violent extremist attacks against civilians are so effective.
How our society responds to brazen but ultimately futile attacks such as these is largely an open question, as information technology continues to redefine our systems of communication and interaction. As Bruce Schneier is wont to say, engineering security is nontrivial. Two concrete examples surrounding the bombing illustrate this.
In the first, some members of the online community reddit tried to analyze social media to discover the identity of the bombers, possibly contributing to the suicide of an ultimately innocent suspect. The court of public opinion poses a real risk to the application of justice even as well-meaning participants try to leverage new technology.
In the second, parts of Boston were put under lockdown for almost the entirety of April 19, 2013. It's far from clear that such extreme action assisted the manhunt or helped to protect lives. Ron Paul claimed that it violated civil liberties and represented a worrying precedent. In any case, like breathless media coverage, such action only amplifies the effect of the attack and may encourage further violence.
How should a coordinated response between police and residents act to contain the violence and rebuild after? It's clear that fighting religious fundamentalism with violence has a particularly poor record of success. Other obvious options have been tried. Engineering a fault-tolerant and robust society compatible with an ever increasing degree of globalization and almost certain economic catastrophes is a challenge worthy of the best thinkers of our age.
Sentencing begins on April 21. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's ultimate fate, execution or life in prison, rests on proving that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the prime actor and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a partially-willing follower, possibly brainwashed by his brother's influence. Recent years have seen a resurgent discussion of the merits of the death penalty. Nearly all other developed nations have long since consigned the extreme measure to history, if only out of a recognition of the imperfection of the legal process, not to mention forcing state complicity in a compromising act of ultimate violence. Even if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had acted alone, would killing him undo his harm, bring back the dead and absolve his guilt? Perhaps Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, like other violent criminals, could use a life of confined reflection to understand his mistakes. Perhaps Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's example could one day be a bridge for other disaffected and confused youth to forsake political violence and rejoin the mainstream of society.