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.

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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?

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.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012
Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Boston Globe’s remarkable two days

Tsarnaev image

A massive investigation into the Tsarnaev family that casts into doubt the notion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the dupe of his older brother, Tamerlan. A harrowing two-part story on a supposed case of “medical child abuse” that raises serious questions about one of our most respected hospitals. And a feel-good story posted to Twitter that immediately goes viral.

It was quite a two days for The Boston Globe, starting with the Sunday edition and wrapping up Monday evening, when staff reporter Billy Baker’s tweets about a poor teenager getting accepted into Yale were cited by the likes of BuzzFeed and Piers Morgan.

It was the Tsarnaev package that has received the most attention. Reported by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen (Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe, visited Dagestan, where he learned of Tamerlan’s inept efforts to join an Islamist insurgency), the story provides the most thorough overview yet of a dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately led the Tsarnaev brothers into terrorism.

The story defies summary. For me, the most fascinating takeaway is that Dzhokhar, far from being manipulated by Tamerlan, was himself an angry young man and a big-time pot dealer who was at the very least a co-equal of Tamerlan’s. With Tamerlan reportedly hearing voices and seemingly unable to make coherent plans, Dzhokhar may well have been the key to pulling off the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indeed, it was Dzhokhar, according to the Globe report, who downloaded an article in an Al Qaeda publication titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” No doubt this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear at Dzhokhar’s trial, especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

(And a quick word about the Boston Herald, which tries to claim that what the Globe published was a politically correct puff piece about the Tsarnaevs — see this, this and this. Just stop, OK? You’re embarrassing yourselves and exploiting the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers’ act of terrorism. At least Herald columnist Margery Eagan hasn’t taken leave of her senses.)

One final point: Even though the Globe published a special eight-page section for its Tsarnaev story, the package was most fully realized online, where it received the large-type/big-art treatment that has become known as the “Snow Fall” effect, after a pioneering New York Times multimedia story. The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue.

Abuse — or a terrible mistake?

If it hadn’t been for the Tsarnaev package, I imagine the big news of the week would be Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen’s report (here and here) about Justina Pelletier, a 14-year-old from Connecticut who was taken to Children’s Hospital with what had been diagnosed as a metabolic disorder.

Doctors at the hospital concluded that Justina was actually the victim of “medical child abuse” at the hands of her parents. They placed the girl in a locked psychiatric unit for months while they tried to figure out what to do next. It is a harrowing and horrifying story, and it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong. But there are some strong suggestions that Children’s made a terrible mistake:

  • Justina’s older sister had been diagnosed with a milder form of metabolic disease, yet was living at home with no apparent issues.
  • Justina’s condition did not improve in the absence of her parents.
  • Dr. Mark Korson, a Tufts physician who had provided the initial diagnosis, was treated with contempt by Children’s and not allowed to participate in Justina’s treatment.

One inescapable conclusion: If the people at Children’s now harbor doubts about their actions, they dare not admit it because of the legal and professional ramifications. The case is as yet unresolved, and I look forward to learning more.

Billy Baker’s tweets of hope

Finally, there is Billy Baker’s remarkable series of tweets, which he began after learning that George Huynh had been accepted into Yale. Baker profiled George and his older brother, Johnny, two years ago. They were both attending Boston Latin School and were determined to rise up despite the suicide of their father and the mental illness of their mother. It began as simply as this:

It turns out that Baker had stayed in touch with the Huynh brothers after his story was published and had become something of a mentor to them. The tweets tell a full, deeply moving story, ending with George’s smiling face.

I’m not sure Twitter is the best tool for narrative journalism, but Baker made it work. And he put a smile on everyone’s face just before Christmas.

Correction: I misspelled Swidey’s name in the original post.

Misplaced priorities at the Boston Police Dept.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

Last October the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU revealed that the Boston Police Department had been spying on left-wing activists such as the late Howard Zinn.

The police were working with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a so-called fusion center through which the authorities could coordinate with the FBI and other agencies to find out who might be plotting a terrorist attack. Zinn, a peace activist, an elderly professor and World War II hero, was clearly someone to keep a close eye on.

Of course, we now know that at the same time the police were wasting their resources on Zinn, they were ignorant of what the FBI knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Among those putting two and two together in the last few weeks were Michael Isikoff of NBC News;  Boston journalist Chris Faraone, who produced this for DigBoston; and Jamaica Plain Gazette editor John Ruch, who wrote an analysis.

Although it would be a stretch well beyond the facts to suggest that if the police hadn’t been watching left-wing and Occupy protesters they might have caught Tsarnaev, the BPD was certainly looking in all the wrong places. The police did a good and courageous job of reacting to the Boston Marathon bombings. The issue is how they spent their time and resources in trying to prevent a terrorist attack.

Spying on the antiwar left makes no more sense today than it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Police Commissioner Ed Davis needs to take a break from giving commencement speeches in order to answer a few questions.

And while I’m on the subject of questionable law-enforcement practices, I sure hope we find out what actually happened in Florida last week. Don’t you?