An echo from the Boston bombings: Stay strong, Manchester

Photo (cc) 2013 by mgstanton.

As someone who has not been personally affected by a terrorist attack, I would not presume to give advice to the people of Manchester on this terrible day after.

But as a resident of the Boston area — and one among the thousands who rallied to the side of our city in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — I have some thoughts about how a community can come together after a tragedy like this.

Read the rest at CNN.com. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Some reflections on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology

Dzhokhar_Tsarnaev_(crop)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It’s impossible to live in the Boston area and not have an opinion about Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s apology, which he delivered in federal court Wednesday as he was formally sentenced to death. For what it’s worth, here’s mine.

I think he was sincere — up to a point. I’m sure he sincerely wishes he didn’t find himself in this predicament, and he would have to be inhuman not to be affected by the victims’ stories that he heard during his trial. He is not inhuman, though he committed inhuman acts.

More than anything, though, I was struck by his aggrandizement and narcissism. He very much wants to impress us with his religious piety. Genuine humility and remorse? Not at the top of his agenda. I’ve heard a number of people say he apologized only because his lawyers pushed him into it. That may be true, but they couldn’t have been very happy with his smug self-regard — or with his thanks to them and others for making his life behind bars so “very easy.”

I was also struck by Kevin Cullen’s observation in The Boston Globe that Tsarnaev spoke with “an affected accent,” which suggests that he remains deeply under the influence of the jihadist propaganda on which he and his brother, Tamerlan, gorged themselves before carrying out their unspeakably evil mission. (And for the umpteenth time: Why couldn’t we see and hear Tsarnaev for ourselves?)

In the years to come, I hope Tsarnaev comes to a more genuine sense of repentance. And though it’s only natural that we focus on what motivated Tsarnaev to act as he did, we should never forget that the people who truly matter are Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their friends, families and those who were injured.

The Tsarnaev jury and the death penalty

Clockwise from top left: Boston Marathon bombing  victims Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu and shooting victim Sean Collier.
Clockwise from top left: Boston Marathon bombing victims Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, and MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was murdered in the aftermath of the attack.

The jurors in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial had an unimaginably difficult job. They deserve our gratitude. The evidence and the sheer depravity of Tsarnaev’s crimes certainly support the death penalty, though I remain adamant in my opposition to it.

But let’s not forget that in a state without the death penalty, and in which polls showed a majority favored life in prison for Tsarnaev, prospective jurors who opposed capital punishment were barred from serving.

No, you don’t have to explain to me why. Allowing a death-penalty opponent onto the jury would have guaranteed a life sentence since there would be no possibility for a unanimous vote for death. But isn’t that just one more argument in favor of abolishing capital punishment?

Survivor couple joins Richards in opposing death penalty

Boston Marathon bombing survivors Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes have joined Bill and Denise Richard in calling on the Justice Department to drop its quest for the death penalty. Kensky and Downes were newlyweds who each lost their left legs in the attack; Kensky later lost her right leg as well. They write:

In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him. We wish that he could feel the searing pain and terror that four beautiful souls felt before their death, as well as the harsh reality of discovering mutilated or missing legs. If there is anyone who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant. However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.

In January, the couple was the subject of an in-depth story by The Boston Globe’s Eric Moskowitz on Kensky’s decision to have her badly damaged right leg amputated. I find it meaningful that neither the Richards nor Kensky and Downes indulge in any dubious reasoning that life in prison would somehow be “worse” for the bomber. They just want it over. Who is anyone else to judge?

A magnificent gesture by a family that has lost much

Martin Richard
Martin Richard

In case you haven’t seen it yet, Bill and Denise Richard have written a magnificent essay for The Boston Globe asking that the government drop its quest to execute the Boston Marathon bomber. (In deference to the Richards’ decision not to name the bomber, I won’t either.)

“For us,” they write, “the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city.”

This is #bostonstrong.

Where Boston’s papers stand on death for Tsarnaev

The Boston Globe today offers some powerful arguments against executing convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Metro columnists Kevin Cullen and Yvonne Abraham weigh in, as do the paper’s editorial page, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. (Columnist Jeff Jacoby has previously written in favor of death for Tsarnaev.)

Over at the Boston Herald, the message is mixed. In favor of the death penalty are columnist Adriana Cohen and editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen. The lead editorial calls for the death penalty as well. Columnist Joe Fitzgerald is against capital punishment for Tsarnaev. Former mayor Ray Flynn offers a maybe, writing that he’s against the death penalty but would respect the wishes of the victims’ families.

Let Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fade away in prison

Martin Richard
Martin Richard

Now the real Boston Marathon trial can begin.

A federal jury’s decision to convict Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of 30 charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings was the most anticlimactic of anticlimaxes. The 21-year-old’s lawyers admitted from the beginning that their client had participated in the horrific terrorist attack, which both scarred and strengthened this city.

The outcome of this first phase may have been preordained, but nearly two years after the bombing, the trial has held Boston and the region in thrall — more so than I might have imagined. The case regularly lands on the front pages of our two daily newspapers, the Globe and the Herald, and often leads the local television newscasts. The Twitter feeds of reporters covering the trial are avidly followed.

We haven’t learned much new, although harrowing details about the deaths of the Tsarnaev brothers’ four victims have come out. More than anything, many people find something cathartic in seeing the seemingly insolent, unrepentant Tsarnaev being brought to justice.

The only issue to be decided is whether Tsarnaev should be executed. Which is why the second phase of his trial is the one that really matters. Was Tsarnaev so thoroughly under the sway of his radicalized older brother, Tamerlan, that he should be spared lethal injection? Or had this seemingly typical teenager transformed himself into a hardened jihadist who obsessed over al Qaeda propaganda such as the article “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”?

What kind of justice should Tsarnaev receive? There is no death penalty in Massachusetts, and in September 2013, according to a Globe poll, 57% of respondents supported life in prison for Tsarnaev; just 33% said he should be executed.

By moving the case into federal court, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it likely that Tsarnaev would receive the death penalty. Keep in mind that no members of the jury were deemed eligible to serve unless they stated beforehand that they were willing to consider putting Tsarnaev to death.

But imagine a different scenario in which Tsarnaev had been allowed to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. He would have been denied the public stage he has been granted; although he has not testified (so far), his terrorist actions have been replayed over and over again for people to see the world over.

The 2015 Boston Marathon will take place in less than two weeks, on Monday, April 20. Thousands of runners will clog the 26.2-mile route, and tens of thousands will cheer them on — as they did last year, proving to the world that we will not be intimidated. And Tsarnaev’s lawyers will still be fighting for their client’s life.

It is a natural if disturbing reaction to events like this that it’s easier to remember the names of the perpetrators than of their victims. But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a loser and a nobody. He should be allowed to fade away into the obscurity of a maximum-security prison cell. The people who deserve to be remembered are those he and his brother killed on Marathon Day — Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu — and Sean Collier, the MIT police officer they executed in cold blood. It is they who should live on in our collective memories.

Personal photo by Lucia Brawley.

Originally published at CNN Opinion.

Naming names: Did the Globe make the right call?

redactedPreviously published at WGBH News.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about The Boston Globe’s decision to publish the names of the FBI agent and State Police troopers who were involved in the Florida shooting death of Ibragim Todashev, the Tamerlan Tsarnaev associate suspected of taking part in a triple murder in Waltham.

The story, by Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti, reveals that FBI agent Aaron McFarlane is a former Oakland police officer with a troubling past. The article raises serious questions about how law enforcement handled the investigation of perhaps the single most important figure connected to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Here is some background to keep in mind as the discussion unfolds.

This past January, David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) reported on the FBI-State Police interrogation that ended in Todashev’s death. Here’s what Boeri had to say about the names of the agent and the two troopers:

In the course of our investigation, WBUR has learned the names of the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting. We are not releasing the names at the request of both the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police, which cited specific concerns for their safety.

In today’s Globe article, we learn that the FBI agent’s name is Aaron McFarlane, and that he “has previously been publicly identified in a blog about the Boston Marathon case.”

That prompted Boston magazine editor-in-chief Carly Carioli to tweet:

(And by the way, in March Boston published its own long investigation into the shooting. The article, by Susan Zalkind, was also the subject of a one-hour segment on public radio’s “This American Life.”)

Carioli’s tweet leads to a site called “The Boston Marathon Bombings: What Happened?”, which on May 3 revealed the names of McFarlane and the two Massachusetts troopers, Joel Gagne and Curtis Cinelli. (As best as I can tell, that’s the first time any of the three officers was named.) According to the site, the names and uncensored crime-scene photos were obtained from PDFs of public records using techniques that sound similar to what the Globe did. The Globe offers this description:

The Globe obtained their names by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton’s report — which in March found the shooting of Todashev justified — and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records. Those records include voting, birth, and pension documents.

On May 5, the same “What Happened?” website revealed some of the problems McFarlane had as a member of the Oakland Police Department that are at the heart of today’s Globe story.

I should note that though the “What Happened?” site appears to have broken some important stories, it also traffics in rather, uh, unusual rhetoric. For instance, here is a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloody and injured as he surrendered in Watertown, beneath the headline “2013: THE YEAR AMERICA BEGAN HUNTING DOWN AND SHOOTINGS[sic] IT’S [sic] OWN TEENAGERS. WHY?”

By all indications the Globe has been careful to do its own reporting — which it would in any case, but which is especially important when dealing with material like this.

Which brings us to the question I imagine we’ll be debating in the days to come: Should the Globe have released the names of McFarlane, Gagne and Cinelli? I’d like to hear arguments on both sides. But keep these three things in mind:

  • The official investigation into Todashev’s death had not been completed when Boeri was doing his reporting for WBUR in January. Since then the three have been cleared by investigators, and the matter is no longer pending.
  • Police officers are doing the public’s business, and we have a right to know as much information as possible about serious matters such as the Todashev shooting. Consider a much more routine example, reported by the Salem News, in which the Essex County district attorney’s office named officers involved in a fatal shooting in the course of disclosing the results of their investigation.
  • Because of the “What Happened?” report, the three names were, in fact, already out there. Whatever calculation Globe editors might have made if this had occurred 20 years ago, it is simply a reality that a mainstream news organization can no longer act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information that it can find out elsewhere. This change doesn’t call for lower standards, but it does call for different standards.

I realize I’m putting my thumb on the disclosure side of the scale. But I think withholding the names would have been a respectable decision as well. As Sacchetti writes today, “Even Florida, which often identifies such officers, declined to do so in this case, citing concerns for the investigators’ safety.”

At this early stage, I can be persuaded either way, and I’m curious to see and hear what others have to say.

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.
Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

A story told with sensitivity and craftsmanship

MA_BGLater today the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. And it seems likely that The Boston Globe will win at least one — maybe more — for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

So it seems fitting that, on Sunday and today, the Globe published a two-part feature that may be a contender for a 2015 Pulitzer. Written by David Abel and photographed by Jessica Rinaldi, with a video produced by Abel and Scott LaPierre, the package tells the story of the Richards, the Dorchester family that more than any other has come to symbolize the region’s heart-breaking loss and resilience.

In reading the first part, I noticed that Abel offered little in the way of the Richards’ experience when the bombs went off and took the lives of three people, including 8-year-old Martin Richard. (Martin’s sister, Jane, lost part of her left leg. Their parents, Bill and Denise, were injured as well. Their brother, Henry, was not injured physically.)

Toward the end of part two, Abel tells the story — and does it with great sensitivity and craftsmanship.

The phrase “Boston Strong” has been misappropriated by many. Last fall I actually saw it flash on a sign outside a liquor store, followed by that day’s specials. Good grief.

The Richards are Boston Strong.