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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.