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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Donald Trump's healthcare failure could be to his advantage

The appearance of weakness is less electorally damaging than actually removing healthcare from millions of people.

Good morning. Is it all over for Donald Trump? His approval ratings have cratered to below 40%. Now his attempt to dismantle Barack Obama's healthcare reforms have hit serious resistance from within the Republican Party, adding to the failures and retreats of his early days in office.

The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to Obamacare had more to do with the word "Obama" than the word "care". The previous President opted for a right-wing solution to the problem of the uninsured in a doomed attempt to secure bipartisan support for his healthcare reform. The politician with the biggest impact on the structures of the Affordable Care Act is Mitt Romney.

But now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they are left in a situation where they have no alternative to Obamacare that wouldn't either a) shred conservative orthodoxies on healthcare or b) create numerous and angry losers in their constituencies. The difficulties for Trump's proposal is that it does a bit of both.

Now the man who ran on his ability to cut a deal has been forced to make a take it or leave plea to Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this plan or say goodbye to any chance of repealing Obamacare.

But that's probably good news for Trump. The appearance of weakness and failure is less electorally damaging than actually succeeding in removing healthcare from millions of people, including people who voted for Trump.

Trump won his first term because his own negatives as a candidate weren't quite enough to drag him down on a night when he underperformed Republican candidates across the country. The historical trends all make it hard for a first-term incumbent to lose. So far, Trump's administration is largely being frustrated by the Republican establishment though he is succeeding in leveraging the Presidency for the benefit of his business empire.

But it may be that in the failure to get anything done he succeeds in once again riding Republican coattails to victory in 2020.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.