USA v. Tsarnaev: We're All On Trial Now
Now that the show trial is over, the real trial begins.
Now the United States of America will seek to convince a jury of 12 that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathonbombers, must, in the name of justice, be killed. This next trial, the penalty phase, is the real drama. Will we look deeply into what made this young emigre into a killer, or will we simply lash out in anger and rage to kill him?
A capital proceeding is a two-step trial. In the first phase, the guilt phase, jurors decide whether a defendant has committed a death-eligible offense. Tsarnaev was found guilty of 17 death-eligible offenses.
The second phase is about to begin. In the penalty phase, jurors are asked to balance aggravating and mitigating factors. They are required to weigh carefully the circumstances of the crime against the character of the defendant. Expect the defense to spend weeks presenting a detailed biography of this 21-year-old man-child.
The defense team has no doubt found everything ever written about Tsarnaev: hospital records, school records, employment records — any and every piece of information. It will ask jurors to spare his life, to require him to spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary.
The easy thing to do is to kill him. That avoids asking painful questions about why a young man would throw away his life in a shocking act of violence. We're a city on a hill, a shining beacon to the world, right? We're targets because people envy our freedom, terrorism is but a form of bloody jealousy. That's the line George W. Bush used after 9/11.
Blood is still spilled daily, more than a decade into the war on terror. We strike from sky with drones; others strike at us with suicide bombs. Far from ending this sickening spiral of violence, we live in a world of even greater violence than existed before 9/11. Look to the Islamic State group and the almost routine videos of beheadings available online.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers never hid what he did when he helped to detonate bombs at the marathon. They told jurors he accepted responsibility for what he had done. Will jurors now accept the responsibility of trying to understand what makes terrorism possible?
I was struck on the day of the bombing about the target — the Boston Marathon, an event in which athletes, most of them amateurs, run 26.2 miles over a hilly course. Most of the participants train for many months to run this race. It takes a people of ease, of leisure, of comparative wealth to make such an avocation possible.
Was the event selected because it represents less a celebration of grit and determination than a refusal to share our abundance with a needy world? Even asking such a question will inspire rage in many.
Let's study the life of this young immigrant. He came to this country as a child with his parents from a former Soviet republic, a region of sectarian violence. He is a Muslim. He spent years here in cosmopolitan Cambridge, Mass. He was getting an education in this country. Like countless others before him, he trod the immigrant's path.
Why the bombs?
We produced this young terrorist. He is the fruit of our womb. He is one among us. The prosecution's effort to demonize Tsarnaev as a cold-blooded killer is playing with caricature, not studying character. Let's not waste the best opportunity we have ever had to understand why a young man full of promise devotes his life to killing us.
I want to know about Tsarnaev's dreams, his hopes, his frustrations — what led him to despair. I want to know why he could just as easily have killed me as any of the victims who chanced to be in Boston one April morning.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn't the only one on trial in Boston. We all are. So is the American Dream. Will we learn why our dream has become a nightmare to so many, or will we simply kill Tsarnaev because it feels good to hate? And if we kill because we hate, why would we expect anything more but more hatred, more death, another bomb?