In the Boston Marathon Bombing, a Verdict, but Few Answers

It took more than three months from start to verdict in the Boston Marathon bombing trial. It will most likely take another couple of months for the government and the defense to lay out, respectively, the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and for the jury to determine whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of all 30 charges on Wednesday, gets the death penalty, or life without parole. The trial has been an astoundingly time-consuming and expensive undertaking, but it has not given the public what it needs and wants most: the fullest possible understanding of what happened.

The two sides offered distinct visions of Mr. Tsarnaev’s motives. The prosecution claimed that he and his older brother, Tamerlan, were equal partners in crime and were “self-radicalized.” The defense argued that the younger brother was brainwashed and dominated by the older.

The problem with these narratives is the very premise of radicalization — the idea that people become terrorists as a result of being indoctrinated by an organization or, as the newly coined term “self-radicalization” would suggest, indoctrinating themselves. This idea has little basis in fact or scholarship. A close examination would shed light on the lure of terrorism, which gives the disenfranchised a chance to become part of something greater. An even closer examination would show that the “war on terror” has contributed to the mythology of international Islamic terrorism as a mighty and glorious entity.

Even worse, two critical questions have not been answered. Where were the bombs built? Investigators have testified that they were not built at the older brother’s apartment or in the younger brother’s dorm room. Were they built in someone else’s apartment, house or garage? If so, who, and was he a knowing accomplice? Did he help in any other way?

A courtroom sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the verdict was read on Wednesday. Credit Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters
A courtroom sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the verdict was read on Wednesday. Credit Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters

The other big question is: Why did the F.B.I. fail to identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, who had been fingered as a potential terrorist risk two years before the bombing and interviewed by field agents? Within 24 hours of the bombing, on April 15, 2013, investigators focused on images of the brothers in surveillance tapes recovered from the scene. Yet they had no names — and more than two days later they released the photos to the public, asking for help with identifying the suspects. How is it possible that someone who had been interviewed by a member of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force could not be identified from the pictures?

There are other questions, big and small. But these two are clearly essential to understanding what went wrong in Boston two years ago. Yet in the course of the trial they were barely discussed.

Arguably, they shouldn’t have been. An American criminal trial is designed to assess guilt and administer justice, not to look for truth — and truth and justice are not synonymous.

Sadly, other authorities have also failed to fully account for what happened or what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Last week the Commonwealth of Massachusetts released its long-awaited “After Action Report” on the response to the marathon bombing. It contained some criticism of the haphazard nature of the police response but nothing on where the bombs were built, much less the F.B.I.’s failures.

As for the F.B.I., Congress has so far neglected its oversight role. In March 2014 the House Committee on Homeland Security released its report on the bombing. It was nearly useless: It contained less information than what was widely available from news reports. What it did include were complaints of various unnamed federal agencies’ failures to cooperate in the research leading to the report. In the course of this research, several members of Congress traveled to Russia; their trip culminated with a briefing at the United States Embassy in Moscow that included Steven Seagal, a washed-up action-movie star who has been acting as a kind of Kremlin P.R. flak specializing in Chechnya. The only reason this congressional trip did not become a source of embarrassment was that virtually no journalists covered it.

The inspectors general of the intelligence community, the C.I.A., the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security issued a brief report in April 2014. It blamed the Russian security agencies for not sharing more information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev with their American counterparts.

In short, not a single government agency has told Americans how someone who had once been fingered as a terrorism suspect could hatch a bombing plot and carry it out; how he managed to escape identification; and who helped the brothers carry out their plan.

Unlike some other people who have touched this case, the lawyers in federal court in Boston have done their jobs remarkably well. The prosecution laid out a meticulously timed and skillfully scripted case, leaving the jury with a clear picture of unspeakable carnage and cruelty. The defense wisely refrained from challenging the testimony of any victims or witnesses. It cross-examined only F.B.I. agents and experts — and, tellingly, some of them sounded unprepared and underinformed when questioned. The sole job of the defense now is to make sure Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lives. The prosecution’s task is to persuade the jury to sentence him to death. That means that, riveting as the next phase of the Boston bombing trial may be, these proceedings cannot and will not move us closer to the truth.

Masha Gessen, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.

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