Inscrutable and rootless: the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Photo: Rex
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Condemned to death, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev remains inscrutable

That evil is banal has been observed. The route to it in the case of the Tsarnaevs was a meandering path to which hindsight can bring little meaningful insight.

The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy
Masha Gessen
Scribe, 274pp, £14.99

On 15 April 2013, two bombs made from pressure cookers, stuffed with gunpowder from fireworks and covered with ball bearings and nails, detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 260 others.

Almost exactly two years later, at a federal courthouse a mere mile or so from where the bombs went off, the younger (and the only surviving) of the two brothers who committed the atrocity was found guilty on 30 counts related to the bombing. Seventeen of those counts carried a possible capital sentence and, on a sunny day in May, the same jury – tasked with deciding the punishment – voted unanimously to condemn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.

The 21-year-old’s trial, which I covered as a reporter, was a strange one. His defence team featured an all-star line-up. Judy Clarke – who successfully helped both the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, evade death – was the lead. Tsarnaev became Clarke’s first client to receive a death sentence.

In court for five long months, Tsarnaev sat glassy-eyed, cold and unresponsive. “His damn dead-eyed stare,” one trial reporter observed afterwards, “probably cost him his life.” He gave nothing, fiddling with his hands and staring at the table as victim after victim heartbreakingly told of their suffering. As the jury handed down the sentence, his face didn’t even flicker.

Clarke and her team were attempting to humanise the defendant by telling his story and those of his parents and his brother, ­Tamerlan, who died after a shoot-out with the police in a suburb of Boston in the days following the bombing – because, despite entering a plea of “not guilty”, the defence in essence conceded that the basic facts of the case were not in dispute. Where she and the prosecution differed, she explained, was in the reason for Tsarnaev’s actions. After the jury returned the guilty verdict, the defence sprang into action, bringing in family and friends who had known Dzhokhar. Tamerlan’s ghost loomed large in the second phase of the trial; witnesses testified that “Jahar”, as the younger Tsarnaev was known, followed his elder brother around “like a puppy”. For the jury, the defence’s attempt to reconcile the Tsarnaev it wanted to portray – stoned, passive, a follower, in thrall to his brother – with the cold-hearted brutality of the bombing failed.

The Tsarnaev Brothers, published in the US just as the trial was reaching its peak, is the journalist Masha Gessen’s attempt to do exactly what the defence tried to do – to put Tsarnaev’s actions in some sort of context and to find some reason, any reason, for what he did.

The Tsarnaev brothers spent their childhood in Kyrgyzstan as members of a family that had been uprooted several times in the Soviet era. Chechens away from Chechnya, the Tsarnaevs came to the United States in search of a better life that they did not find. Poor but not destitute, not particularly devout, the brothers grew up rudderless in the rapidly gentrifying university city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In a way, Gessen fails just as the defence did in searching for meaning. Her story is the same as the one that the jury unanimously declined to buy. She briefly flirts, at the end, with the idea that the bombing might have been part of an FBI entrapment operation, or that Tamerlan was an informant. None of this is inconceivable. It would not be out of character for the bureau to attempt and then bungle this sort of thing. (When one FBI agent took the stand during the trial, he identified a picture from Tsarnaev’s Twitter account as an image of Mecca; the defence attorney Miriam Conrad, in a scalding cross-examination, pointed out that it was, in fact, a picture of a mosque in Grozny.)

Gessen, however, sees the conspiracy theories for what they are – another attempt to project meaning on to an ultimately meaningless act of horror and violence. There are no answers to be found in ­Tsarnaev’s family, its rootlessness or the history of Soviet violence against the Chechen people.

In her closing argument in the penalty phase of the trial, Clarke said: “If you want me to have . . . a simple, clean answer as to how this can happen, I don’t have it. I don’t have it.” She implored the jury to “choose life”. She asked for mercy. But, faced with the unspeakable carnage, the members of the jury, who had been specially picked for their ability to choose death (a capital trial needs what is known as a “death-qualified” jury; anyone who is ideologically opposed to capital punishment is automatically ineligible), chose it.

There were no answers there and Gessen finds none, too. Perhaps there are none. That evil is banal has been observed. The route to it in the case of the Tsarnaevs was a meandering path to which hindsight can bring little meaningful insight.

Instead, the lasting image from the trial is the one on which the prosecution rested its case: that of the immediate aftermath of the detonation, of dust and mayhem at the finish line and of blood, bright and shockingly red, pooling in the gutter.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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