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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The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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