I’ve been thinking a lot about motive lately.
When I was in school for creative writing, I was taught all characters need motivation. Without it, they act in wanton and unbelievable fashion, and you will lose your readers because depicted events just won’t feel “real.” That’s the trick to being a good fiction writer: you have to understand the human condition well enough to simulate how things would happen, even if they haven’t happened at all. Characters have to make choices, and need to have good reasons present – in their environment and in their minds – in order to pick the inevitable choice for the furtherance of the plot. It’s a common mistake in beginning writers to force characters along a plot trajectory without proper motivation simply because the writer wants or needs them to do so. It results in a sloppy, artificial narrative that offends readers because we all know, consciously or not, that people just don’t act that way.
I say all this because this is precisely the mistake the prosecution made when they presented a motive for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I promised I would continue writing about Dzhokhar’s case, but as this summer wore on, I found myself struggling to find a good starting point. There are so many issues on so many levels that, for awhile, it all seemed too overwhelming to tackle. But as I tried to let the dust settle on the trial and its harsh verdicts, my mind would circle the whole debacle like a vulture, trying to find its fatal core. In the end, I always came back to one element.
The Single Most Important Thing
This case, as messy and tragic as it is, hinges entirely on Dzhokhar’s motive. The prosecution and defense didn’t disagree on the hows, but the whys. Yes, he was involved, but why?
Some might say it doesn’t matter, that murder is murder and a terrorist is a terrorist. I would congratulate them, because I know that means they undoubtedly sleep better at night than I do. But neither is true, on a variety of levels, particularly legally. Murder, for instance, is not simply murder: there are several degrees of murder, all pointing to different levels of culpability and appropriate punishment. There are also times when legally, killing another human being isn’t murder at all. A person can be found not-guilty on grounds of self-defense, insanity, or – the all-important condition to this case – duress. (Legally, a terrorist is not simply a terrorist either, but the implications of this are far murkier and, as I have learned, not well-defined.)
Here’s why motive is so important to this case: it changes, entirely, the nature of the crimes. If Dzhokhar wanted to commit the bombings, if he was eager to end human life, giddy to maim and traumatize, then he’s guilty, unequivocally. He’s worse than guilty; he’s beyond the pale – evil, a monster, less than human. Something so abhorrent is easy to want to put out of its misery, which is why the prosecution, in pursuit of the death sentence, pushed this narrative so hard.
But what if he didn’t want to be involved?
As I have discussed in a previous post, I believe there are valid, troubling reasons why the defense wanted to offer a duress defense but were either afraid to, or weren’t allowed to. Instead, they had to frame their argument in more watered-down terms, stating Dzhokhar acted under the “influence” of his brother. I’m not going to revisit those reasons here, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go ahead and say that this is indicative of duress, even though it was never officially stated. The fact remains: either he wanted to be involved, or he didn’t. Crimes of this magnitude simply don’t allow for halfway.
At trial, two versions of Dzhokhar’s motive were presented. The defense described him as a reluctant accomplice due to, while not excusable, at least understandable circumstances – love of his brother and an obligation to listen to his eldest sibling, instilled by the cultural upbringing of a Chechen family. The prosecution offered something different: that Dzhokhar acted eagerly and of his own volition with no outside influence (of his brother or otherwise) because of one reason: radicalization. Not just radicalization, but self-radicalization. In short, nothing pushed him along this path; he wanted to become an evil monster, so he sought out the materials that would turn him into an evil monster, took them to heart, and acted accordingly.
I have been vocal about this before, and I will continue to be: I just don’t buy this. Not only does it fly in the face of all accepted human psychology, but it reads like the pages of a poorly written paperback thriller. The prosecutors lost me as an audience with this explanation and never got me back. In fact, it shocked me that the jury appeared to believe it so readily – in the sentencing poll, nine of twelve stated they believed Dzhokhar still would have acted if Tamerlan had been removed from the picture.
The inherent injustice present in a skewed story told about someone unable to properly speak up for himself – and worse, for the few scraps of truth to fall upon deaf ears – disturbs me on such a fundamental level I cannot even rightly describe it. I would concede many things in this case if that, at least, had been left alone. It was the drive not only to portray Dzhokhar as a monster, but the eagerness of everyone – jury, media, and the general public – to believe it in the face of so much contradictory evidence that drove me to speak out and start looking into what could have really happened. Along the way, I became obsessed with the idea of what I would have done if the courtroom was mine and I could present the argument I wanted. In the last few weeks, this has become a thought experiment for me, in an attempt to give Dzhokhar a fair venue, even if it exists only in the confines of my mind. I asked myself: could I, using the evidence and testimony that was given at trial, disprove the prosecution’s theory of motive and accusation of radicalization?
The answer is yes, I can. And doing so illuminates not only the illogic of the junk psychology involved, but reveals exactly how much anti-Muslim prejudice was allowed to run rampant inside the Boston federal courthouse this spring.
The Non-Existent Legal Standard of Radicalization
If you’ve been reading my previous posts, this talk of radicalization probably sounds familiar. Shortly after the death sentence verdict came in, I wrote a long entry about my observations in the courtroom and my conclusion that the trial, start to finish, was inherently biased; Dzhokhar did not receive the fair chance he is guaranteed as an American citizen. I talked about radicalization then as well, but it is so crucial to the heart of this matter I believe it warrants an even closer look. Previously, I defined radicalization on a psychological level, referring to a book written on the subject by experts. I went through each defined “mechanism” to radicalization to explain why I did not think Dzhokhar had been truly radicalized. I’m not going rehash that argument either (you can review it here under “Part Three”), but I would like to reiterate radicalization’s definition by the psychologists Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:
Radicalization is the development of beliefs, feelings, and actions in support of any group or cause in conflict… Radicalization is not something that happens only to others – the mentally ill person or the evil character. It is a psychological trajectory that, given the right circumstances, can happen to any person, group or nation. The trajectory is not right or wrong: it is amoral in the sense that radicalization can occur for causes both good and bad. (4)
I repeat this because it is the best and clearest explanation of radicalization I have found, written by psychologists studying the phenomenon for years, who illustrated their argument with several case studies. In their book Friction, published in 2011, they cite not only recent examples but return all the way to nineteenth century Russian revolutionaries, from which the term “terrorist” was first coined.
Admittedly, this sort of psychology is extremely cutting edge: there is still a lot we don’t know. That being said, in lieu of actual psychological information, the word “radicalization” – along with other blanket terms like “terrorist” and “jihadist” – have been tossed around casually since the early 2000s, by law enforcement, prosecutors and the media without any regard for what they actually mean. So too was radicalization used in this case to explain Dzhokhar’s motive. Why did he do it? Oh, well, he was radicalized. Done and done, no need to look further into his psyche, his environment, or his emotions. Radicalization, the prosecution asserted, superseded all of that, making him into a terrorist thirsty for blood. In fact, for a word meant to encompass the entirety of his motive, the government offered no meaningful definition of it. When they asked their expert witness to describe radicalization, he only stated that it happens when you “adopt radical ideas and then do something about them”(Boston Globe). He gave no explanation as to what constitutes a radical idea, thus leaving it upon the death-qualified jury – already statistically likely to be more conservative and trusting of the government than your average citizen – to draw their own conclusions.
When I was discussing all of this with my father a few weeks ago, given his lawyerly sensibilities, he posed this question to me: “Is there a legal standard of radicalization?”
He explained that in law, there are uniform standards that are put in place so that it can be determined if each case meets them, so as to ensure that the law can be applied fairly and equally. For example, there is a legal standard of insanity, so that if a defendant, such as in the recent James Holmes case, claims innocence on account of mental illness, there is a standard that needs to be met in order to deem said defendant unaccountable for the crimes. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University covers the history of the insanity defense, but consider the most recent terms of the standard put forth on the federal level:
The federal insanity defense now requires the defendant to prove, by “clear and convincing evidence,” that “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts” (18 U.S.C. § 17).
Definitive standards are put forth here: it must be evident through provable facts that the defendant not only suffers from a mental disorder, but that it caused him (or her) to be unable to understand right from wrong. Obviously there is still a lot that can be argued – having a diagnosable disorder, for instance, does not automatically mean you are rendered morally defunct – but at least there is a rule in place that draws a clear line. My father wondered, since so much attention was placed by the prosecution on Dzhokhar’s radicalization, if there must be a legal standard of such they needed to reach in order to prove he was willingly involved with the crimes.
This sounded so logical, measured and fair – qualities I have learned through experience not to expect from this case – that I thought I might already know the answer. “Probably not.”
“See if you can find out,” my father said. “I’d be interested to know.”
I realized I would be, too. If I knew exactly what radicalization meant on the legal level, I could weigh the evidence in the case against it, and prove for certain whether Dzhokhar met the criteria needed in order to be definitively called a “terrorist” and a “jihadist,” labels applied to him from the moment he was first identified as a suspect. This sent me on a quest through scholarly legal articles and government documents, all in the pursuit of one clear, simple definition of radicalization as applied to the law.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is no, there is no legal definition. In fact, my findings were even more unsettling than learning evidence of Dzhokhar’s motive was measured against a non-existent rule containing an arbitrarily decided-upon definition. Although the aspects of radicalization have been studied by psychologists, law enforcement counter-terrorism practices since the early 2000s are based not on expert findings, but their own internal and limited intelligence assessments. These practices have been thoroughly criticized for racial and religious profiling of Muslim-Americans, but are still in use today, despite widespread concerns about their ineffectiveness. Prosecutors rely on these standards as well, explaining why in Dzhokhar’s case, in lieu of actual involvement in the conspiracy to commit the bombings, the government almost exclusively presented evidence of his religion.
Let me say that again: because of well-established discriminatory practices among government agencies, the prosecution tried to pass off evidence that Dzhokhar is a Muslim as evidence that he intended to commit acts of terrorism.
And it worked.
Defining the Undefinable
While I couldn’t find anything that set forth a legal standard of radicalization, I did find scholarship discussing the hazards presented by not having one. In December 2013, Amna Akbar published the article, “Policing Radicalization” in the UC Irvine Law Review, and her analysis has become essential to my understanding of this issue. Akbar, a law professor whose specialities include national security and its impact on criminal law, takes issue with the strategies put in place by the authorities to combat terrorism. Right away, she addresses the lack of an agreed-upon definition of radicalization:
There is no singular, official, government-wide understanding of radicalization. Indeed, more often than not, government officials and documents refer to “radicalization,” “radical” and “radicalized” Muslims, “radical Islam,” “violent extremists,” and so on, without explanation of what precisely these terms mean. Importantly, however, these references assume causal connections between radicalism, extremism, Islam, and terrorism. (814)
What this does, Akbar explains, is put undue pressure on Muslim communities, because the government has assumed, without conducting proper studies or consulting experts, that radicalization to terrorism is fostered within these communities. This has created a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t effect on Muslims in America, who have found themselves under surveillance and regarded with a general sense of distrust by law enforcement. Akbar adds:
Herein lies the larger problem with radicalization. While in some ways it offers only a thin veneer over suspicion of Muslims and Islam (or conflations between Muslims, Islam, and terrorism), the veneer is thick enough to change the terms of the debate. Law enforcement’s concern with mosques, antiwar sentiments, hijabs, and niqabs is now cloaked in expertise about the process by which Muslims become terrorists. In a colorblind world where intent defines our understanding of discrimination, the language of justification for government action can make all the difference. (817)
To return to McCauley and Moskalenko’s definition, it should be noted that religion plays no part in the trajectory of radicalization. It is a condition of humanity, not any particular religious or ethnic group. Treating it as a problem with Muslims, as the American government has, can only result in unfair profiling and faulty grounds for arrest. This is the thrust of Akbar’s argument.
She cites in particular two government-issued documents that have become the cornerstone for counter-radicalization policing in post-9/11 America. One is a twelve-page FBI report entitled “The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad,” issued in 2006. The other is a much longer assessment, published by the NYPD in 2007, called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” written by analysts Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt. Akbar is highly critical of both. About the FBI assessment, she says,
In addition to proposing what on its face seems a reductionist view of how someone might decide to commit any crime—let alone a crime of great magnitude—the twelve-page document includes almost no citations, sourcing, or indication of methodology. (820)
Despite Akbar’s astute criticisms, I tracked down the documents, hoping that reading them would at least give me an understanding of the government’s take on radicalization, and how it might have shaped the prosecution’s theory of Dzhokhar’s case. I thought that since there is no legal standard of radicalization, I could use these documents to craft a theoretical one, and use it as a standard against which to weigh the evidence that had been presented at trial.
I soon realized, however, that this was impossible, because neither document defines radicalization in any useful way.
Consider this chart included in the FBI’s assessment, which summarizes their hypothetical “phases” of radicalization. I could not get past the “pre-radicalization” phase, since it seems to preclude everyone who has a pulse. If the opportunities for radicalization occur on the internet, in schools, workplaces, places of worship and prisons, the inevitable conclusion is that to avoid the risk of being radicalized, one would have to never leave the house, and certainly never turn on a computer. I’m also not sure what the purpose of including the “Stimulus” section was, as “self” and “other” cover every single possibility. I realized that if I wanted to use this as a measuring stick, I would be reduced to posing the question, “Did Dzhokhar spend most of his life prior to the crimes locked in a closet?” Since the answer is no, then yes, I guess he was at risk for radicalization. But it also means that I’m at risk for radicalization, and you’re at risk for radicalization, and everyone we’ve ever met is at risk for radicalization.
I could, perhaps cynically, also state that the FBI’s assessment makes a presupposition that it is only Muslims living their everyday lives who are at risk for radicalization – indeed, as they list examples of employment opportunities as “bookstores, halal meat markets, and so forth” and academic opportunities as “Islamic groups on campus”(7). However, the document also has the curious habit of referring to those who are radicalized as “converts” and makes specific references to newcomers to Islam. Therefore, the larger implication is that everyone is at risk for radicalization, whether they started out as a Muslim or not. While this continues to unfairly point the finger at Islam as essential to radicalization, it also makes it even more useless as a measuring tool.
I moved on to the NYPD document, which is almost one hundred pages long and has a defined authorship: Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, credited as “senior intelligence analysts.” I hoped that the detail involved would provide a better picture for the standard of radicalization I needed to craft. Unfortunately, in terms of actually defining the phenomenon, it was even less helpful. Which should hardly be surprising, as it was revealed in 2012 that departments using this intelligence failed to generate a single lead on terrorism. But upon reading it, an eerie sense of familiarity settled over me. I realized that in following Dzhokhar’s case, I had seen all this before – and not because the profile set forth by the NYPD had any accuracy to it. However, I now suspect that the prosecution either consulted this document directly, or with government agents who have been operating off of its flawed findings.
In her own article, Akbar spends a good deal of time identifying the major problems in this assessment. For example, Silber and Bhatt have also divided radicalization into four major steps: “pre-radicalization,” “self-identification,” “indoctrination” and “jihadization.” Once again, in the pre-radicalization phase, nailing down any specific signals – aside from being Muslim – becomes difficult. About this, Akbar says:
Rather than articulate anything nearing a description of a discrete stage in a multi-step process, the report defines preradicalization’s circumference as spatial and cultural, gendered, classed, and aged. The immigrant Muslim neighborhood becomes a site of suspicion. Silber and Bhatt hypothesize that “[m]iddle class families and students” are of greatest concern, including “the bored and/or frustrated, successful college students, the unemployed, the second and third generation, new immigrants, petty criminals, and prison parolees.” (834)
As in the FBI report, this rules out almost no one, although it is focused more specifically on those who are Muslims due to heritage and not recent converts. In particular, young Muslim males are singled out, although the age range, 15-35 years old, is still hardly specific enough to establish a useful theory about patterns of behavior.
Moving ahead to the second stage, things start to veer even more off course. Silber and Bhatt attempt to explain the motivating factor to radicalization, which Akbar immediately calls out as being inaccurate:
The second stage, “self-identification,” involves gravitation toward “Salafi Islam” and a “Salafi mosque.” (In the United States, Salafism tends to be understood as a homogeneous “fundamentalist” strain of Islam—indeed the primary strain of concern. To the contrary, Salafism is a mode of interpretation with various geographical and historical iterations.) (835)
Indeed, the NYPD document refers consistently to something called “jihadi-Salafi ideology” as the root cause of homegrown terrorism in the Western world. Silber and Bhatt put it in these terms:
What motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out “autonomous jihad” via acts of terrorism against their host countries? The answer is ideology. Ideology is the bedrock and catalyst for radicalization. It defines the conflict, guides movements, identifies the issues, drives recruitment, and is the basis for action. In many cases, ideology also determines target selection and informs what will be done and how it will be carried out.
The religious/political ideology responsible for driving this radicalization process is called jihadist or jihadi-Salafi ideology and it has served as the inspiration for all or nearly all of the homegrown groups including the Madrid 2004 bombers, the Hofstad Group, London’s 7/7 bombers, the Australians arrested as part of Operation Pendennis in 2005 and the Toronto 18, arrested in June 2006. (16)
Aside from the fear-mongering present in the authors’ opinion that ideas by themselves are dangerous, the lumping together of Jihadism and Salafism as synonymous is, as Akbar pointed out, factually inaccurate. Their claim about deadly ideologies is quite bold when they are unable to identify what they are. It is worth noting what the differences are and how they relate to each other. Indeed, considering Dzhokhar himself has been labeled a “jihadist,” I think, at the very least, we should know exactly what the word means.
To define Salafism and Jihadism, I turn to the scholar Reza Aslan, who has two degrees in Religious Studies and a PhD in Sociology, in which his dissertation focused on Global Jihadism (the longer name for Jihadism; both names are, in this case, synonymous for the same movement). In his book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, he discusses several Islamic movements, including Salafism, and how they eventually gave rise to Jihadism. He explains:
Jihadism is a relatively new phenomenon. Jarret Brachman, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, traces its current incarnation as a global force to about 2003, though its roots go back to an early-twentieth-century Islamic revivalist movement known as Salafism (the term salaf refers to the original Companions of the Prophet Muhammad). Salafism began as a progressive movement in colonial Egypt and India whose adherents advocated reform and liberalization of traditional Islamic doctrine. The movement was founded upon the writings of two of the century’s most renowned Muslim intellectuals, the Iranian scholar/activist Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (who began his career in India) and the Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abdu. Al-Afghani and Abdu believed that the only way for the Muslim world to throw off the yoke of colonialism and push back against Western cultural hegemony was through a revival of Islam. These “modernists,” as they were called, blamed the clerical establishment – the ‘ulama – for the sorry state of Muslim society. They sought to challenge the clergy’s self-proclaimed role as the sole legitimate interpreters of Islam by advocating an individualized, unmediated, and highly personal reading of the Qur’an and the Hadith (the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad). (24-25)
Right here it becomes evident that Silber and Bhatt’s term “jihadi-Salafi ideology” makes no sense, as it is asserting that jihadists are adhering to a movement that began in the early 1900s, which addressed a specific political conflict in a specific geographical location: Egypt and India, in response to Western colonialism. This is simply not the case. The strict interpretation of Islamic doctrine (which is also a recent one, throwing off the suspicion that is now so commonly cast on Islam as a traditionally violent and oppressive religion) of the Salafis has inspired the Jihadist movement of today, but by no means are they interchangeable.
So Salafism isn’t Jihadism, but what is Jihadism? Again, enlightenment on this movement comes from Reza Aslan. He defines it as follows:
Despite its fixation on jihad, Global Jihadism is less a religious movement than it is a social movement, one that employs religious symbols to forge a collective identity across borders and boundaries. Social movements arise when relatively powerless people band together under the banner of a collective identity in order to challenge the existing social order. Such movements are, almost by definition, utopian in character, in that they are fervently engaged in reimagining society. This is particularly true of so-called transformative social movements, such as Global Jihadism, which seek a complete upending of the social order through violent revolution, often in anticipation of cataclysmic global change. (Xvii – xviii)
Herein lies the fatal flaw with current American domestic counter-terrorism measures. In assuming the problem lies within the Muslim community, they have failed to see the bigger picture. Jihadism has nothing to do with actual Islam. To place suspicion on Muslims, and to define their inherent behavior as signs of possible radicalization, is missing the point entirely. It isn’t those who are religious who are vulnerable to the Jihadist movement. It’s people who, due to a slew of factors in their everyday lives, are looking for answers. It’s the same type of psychology that lures people into joining cults – this cult just happens to be wearing the mask of a major world religion.
Islamophobia in the Courtroom, Part I: The Unfathomable Terrorist
I find it unacceptable that none of these measured explanations from experts made it to the courtroom for Dzhokhar’s trial. Instead, the case against him was built on one faulty definition after another. Through them, it was purported that Dzhokhar was an adherent to the Jihadist movement, and evidence of his religion was presented as sufficient to prove that he was radicalized enough to willingly commit acts of terrorism. The standard of radicalization given – “you adopt radical ideas and then do something about them” – was so vague that it left the jury to decide for themselves what it all meant. Considering their demographic skewed toward white, older, and most likely non-Muslim, it’s probably inevitable that they took the prosecution at their word.
So what exactly did the prosecution tell them?
While I believe the NYPD assessment laid the template for their case, interestingly the erroneous term “jihadi-Salafi ideology” never made it into the courtroom. However, “Global Jihadism” and “radicalization” did. On March 23, the prosecution called a witness, Matthew Levitt, to define the phrases and discuss the cache of “extremist materials” found on Dzhokhar’s computer. Levitt holds a PhD from Tufts in International Relations, and has consulted the government on terrorism cases before, but his personal specialty is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s written many books on the Palestinian group Hamas, and also Hezbollah, the Islamist political party and military wing in Lebanon.
While I’m sure Levitt is a knowledgable person, I confess I find the choice to have him testify about Global Jihadism and radicalization baffling, as they are both topics outside his specific sphere of expertise. Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are a different beast from Jihadism, as they are tied politically to one geographic area, and have both been integrated into the government structure of those countries in some form. In fact, Hezbollah has long been under debate as to whether it is an actual terrorist organization, only having been added to the EU’s list of such in 2013. Jihadism, as explained above, doesn’t have its roots in politics or religion so much as social ideology, and is considered a worldwide movement without borders or territories.
Because of this, I must evaluate Levitt’s overall usefulness to this case with a critical eye. Let’s start with his explanation of Global Jihadism. Unfortunately, I don’t currently have transcripts for this portion of the trial, but I did return to the Boston Globe’s live tweet coverage to recover the gist of his testimony. According to two separate reporters, Levitt defined Global Jihadism as the following:
[The] Global Jihad movement [is] not a place w[ith] an office, but an idea in which even supporters may disagree on strategy. But they share a need for global effort on behalf of Muslims to unite as a nation to defend itself [and] do through acts of violence. It doesn’t mean we’re talking about an organization. … Once you had to travel to train. The world is flat through social media. You can get your indoctrination… just online. What ties them together [is] ideology… the how, the what they do. You don’t have to have met with an individual or pledged an oath. For most people, the killing of innocents is forbidden… This movement often authorizes killing of innocents as praiseworthy, even a personal obligation, to serve the cause. These types of ideas have motivated a whole host of characters… from groups to lone offenders. (compiled by me from tweets by reporters Patricia Wen and Kevin Cullen)
While this is all technically true, already Levitt is setting up a certain mysticism about Global Jihadism: that it exists somewhere abstract, out there on the Internet, where innumerable quantities of people are indoctrinating themselves with no outside pull. This is simply inaccurate. People seek out social movements like Jihadism because of unfulfilling circumstances in their own lives, and while these circumstances vary, Reza Aslan has a specific take on why young Muslims in the West are particularly vulnerable. He explains clashing ideologies from their parents’ generation with modern society – aided by the general distrust of Muslims by law enforcement and the general public, but more on that later – results in an identity crisis, in which they must choose between being Muslim or being a Westerner. He continues:
The crisis of identity faced by these young Muslims, many of whom feel they belong in neither the West nor the East, drives them to seek out new identities that cannot be contained by any culture or society, that in fact reach all boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nationality. In other words, they seek a deterritorialized identity to match the deterritorialized world in which they live. And they find that identity online. Indeed, thanks to the Internet, the worldwide community of faith that the Jihadists have long envisioned has become a virtual reality. (147-148)
This provides a much more reasoned explanation for why Jihadism might be appealing to a certain set of people. In fact, there’s even a sense of inclusion to it that understandably most humans would find welcoming. This goes a long way to dispel two myths set up by the prosecution at Dzhokhar’s trial: that only inhuman monsters would find this sort of thing desirable, and that we, as regular decent people, are at a loss to ever understand it.
Levitt’s testimony also puts undue emphasis on the ability of “radical materials” – namely the reading, listening and video material found on Dzhokhar’s laptop deemed to be Jihadist propaganda – to cause radicalization. He describes the ideal conditions of radicalization to be a “cognitive opening… which is part personal grievance and exposure to political ideology.” This is already a misleadingly simplistic way of putting it. According to McCauley and Moskalenko’s definition, political ideology is not necessarily a critical component to radicalization (again, see Part Three of this post for a breakdown of their six mechanisms and how they apply to this case). So this statement might not be completely true, but it certainly sets out the welcome mat for the prosecution to parade any political opinion of Dzhokhar’s as a radical one.
Levitt does appear to imply that extremist materials alone aren’t enough to radicalize a person to action – “someone has to be able to hold your hand and pull you across that dividing line” – but he also seems to think that this can still be done entirely online. He described “full-fledged radicalization” as something that can happen “sometimes thr[o]u[gh] [the] Internet,” and that the triggering material “could be a long treatise, could be a Tweet.” He also warns about the evolving propaganda materials of Jihadists: “Ten years ago, mostly theological treatises were put online. Now you have glossy magazines, Twitter and Facebook accounts.” He goes on to correlate Islamic nasheeds, traditional religious songs, with terrorism: “Chants can be devotional, but many groups use them to advocate violent ideas.” He states that “It’s removed barriers to entry,” which I can only assume means that he thinks listening to nasheeds brings a person closer to crossing “that dividing line” to violent action. He apparently considers the same about Jihadist propaganda audio and video files targeting a Western, English-speaking audience: “You can hear people who speak your own colloquial English. That removes barriers to entry.”
Ostensibly, this provides the foundation for the prosecution to conflate the materials on Dzhokhar’s laptop – namely the Inspire Magazine issues, Islamic nasheeds, and Anwar al-Awlaki sermons – as huge factors to his radicalization. On an interesting note, although much emphasis was put on the Anwar al-Awlaki sermons as radicalizing, Amna Akbar specifically names him as a scholar commonly overused by law enforcement on a kind of radicalization checklist, thus throwing the veracity of the prosecution’s claim about him into question:
Consistent with governmental focus on the Internet as a hub for terrorist activity, the FBI and NYPD monitor Internet activity as part of their counterterrorism efforts. This includes monitoring what people consume and post on the Internet about their opinions and activities via email listservs, blogs, websites, and chatrooms. These efforts seem to focus on those who download content by particular Muslim scholars, like the late Anwar Al-Aulaqi; post on Muslim-identified websites or participate in Muslim-identified online chat and discussion forums focused on religious discourse and U.S. foreign policy; and watch “jihadi” videos. (865-866)
Also, this was during the guilt phase of the trial, where the government mentioned Tamerlan as little as possible and the defense was not allowed to bring him up. The jury was given no evidence about where the material came from until the penalty phase, when the defense was finally able to prove it was all dumped there from Tamerlan’s computer, not downloaded independently from the Internet by Dzhokhar. There was also no evidence presented to prove how many times he perused these materials – or if he perused them at all. Considering that they were put there in one fell swoop from Tamerlan, that indicates he had an overwhelming wealth of material to digest, not a collection he stockpiled himself over time. This was in January of 2012, when Dzhokhar was 18 years old, shortly before a school semester started back up, and the very same day Tamerlan left the country for six months. Considering his easily distractible age, his transitioning environment, and the absence of the person wanting him to engage with the material – plus a distinct lack of evidence that he actually did engage with the material – I highly suspect he forgot entirely about them shortly after they were given to him.
But all of that aside, even if Dzhokhar did seek out extremist materials on the Internet – despite his search history showing no evidence of such activities, replaced with sites of social media, cars, anime and porn (yep, normal teenage boy behavior here) – the assertion by Levitt that Internet usage leads to a deeper and faster radicalization has some problems. Regardless, he seems to reinforce this erroneous idea when the prosecutor asks, “Does the length of time that someone consume[s] material make a difference?” to which he replies, “No. Each person [is] different. Time doesn’t matter. Some people only need brief immersion.”
Honestly, I’ve been struggling to make sense of this statement for days. I confess having to rely on media approximation of testimony is less than ideal, and I would like to give Levitt the benefit of the doubt that his words were condensed and perhaps misconstrued by those reporting them (although media slant surrounding this case is a separate issue). But any way you slice it, there is just no psychology to back up the claim that a person can have a “brief immersion” in online extremist materials and end up as a full-fledged terrorist shortly thereafter. McCauley and Moskalenko don’t mention the Internet as a magnifying factor at all, and Reza Aslan addresses his own reservations:
Although the Internet provides Jihadist leaders with an invaluable tool for communication, it is debatable what role their online offensive actually plays in radicalizing Muslim youths. (The official British inquiry into the 7/7 attacks concluded that there was little evidence that Khan, Tanweer, and Hussain were big Internet users.) That is because the overwhelming majority of participants in social movements comprise what sociologists refer to as “free riders” – people who share the movement’s grievances, who associate with the movement’s goals, and who have absorbed the movement’s symbols into their own identities, but who do not take part in the movement’s actions. In the case of Global Jihadism, free riders are those who join chat room discussions and download Jihadist videos but who are attracted to Jihadism as they would be to any other anti-establishment movement – casually, and as a form of rebellion. (148)
So the downloading and digestion of Jihadist materials doesn’t even serve as a good marker for who will follow the so-called radicalization process to violence. Much like the scares of ages past – that reading Communist literature makes one a Communist, and listening to goth music and playing violent video games will make kids come to school with guns – such thinking assumes an inaccurate simplicity of the human psyche. If our heads were completely empty, it might be feasible that filling them with propaganda could be enough to compel us to action. Instead, such propaganda needs to be weighed against what we already know, or think we know, about the world. For example, seeing an ad for an Apple Watch is not likely to compel me to buy one, unless I was already looking for the benefits that it fulfills. Maybe I didn’t know the Apple Watch could fulfill my needs until I saw the ad for it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t predisposed to wanting one. However, as I’m already chock full of tech gadgets that serve the same purpose as an Apple Watch, I’m going to pass every time. Propaganda of all types attempts to predict what people are already looking for and play off of it. It’s why marketing is so important to any business, and why many terrorist groups have marketing departments as well: to keep themselves appealing to the people already looking for them.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that Levitt’s testimony actually encourages the idea that radicalization to terrorism is a completely unfathomable phenomenon, and so the jury shouldn’t try to understand it. The prosecutor asks him, “Is there a way to measure how radicalized someone is?” to which he replies there is “no clear way until someone acts” and that there isn’t a quantifiable system of measurement, such as, “This a 3.2 radicalization.” While it’s true that you can’t get a numerical measurement – as if a blood test could determine the level of radicalization in someone’s system – the idea that no one can tell someone is radicalized until they’ve already committed terrorism is so ignorant it borders on dangerous. Still, Levitt reinforces this opinion when the prosecutor asks, “Can you predict who can become a terrorist?” by saying, “No, and I don’t know anybody who has.”
This assertion isn’t just baffling, it’s insulting. There are whole government agencies dedicated to combating terrorism, not to mention several think tanks worldwide studying the phenomenon. To claim that decades of energy, money, and intellectual manpower has not resulted in a single working theory about who can become a terrorist either means our counter-terrorism measures are in even worse shape than I thought, or – more likely, considering I’ve been able to present on this blog a number of ways to determine actual radicalization – Levitt simply travels in circles in which no one cares to know what can make someone a terrorist. In fact, it doesn’t even take an expert. In this very case, the defense presented a number of witnesses who testified that Tamerlan’s behavior scared them so much they were afraid of him, and afraid of what he might do. Relatives had to talk him out of joining a rebel group in Dagestan, and upon hearing about the bombing of the Marathon, certain family and friends immediately thought he might be involved. So to say that it’s impossible to know until it’s too late is perpetuating two dangerous myths about terrorists: that they are so beyond our comprehension not only should we give up on trying to understand them, but because of this, we are forever at their mercy.
Neither of which is true, unless we let it be.
Islamophobia in the Courtroom, Part II: Guilt by Muslim Association
With this unsound foundation laid, the prosecution lurched forward with their “evidence” of Dzhokhar’s radicalization. In addition to the propaganda materials found on his laptop, they presented a number of information that not only struck me as pointless and downright biased, but falls right in line with the findings of the NYPD intelligence report, criticized so extensively by Amna Akbar. The jury was subjected to strings of Tweets and texts from Dzhokhar containing any hint of a religious or political opinion. This is likely because commonly accepted – although erroneous – signals of radicalization are religious expression and political opinions. About this, Akbar says,
The associated factors [to radicalization] are widespread expressions of Muslim identity or religiosity: “pilgrimage to Mecca,” “[g]rowing a beard,” and “pa[ying] off the mortgage on [one’s] house because Islam forbids paying interest on loans.” Here, Muslim religious practice—core First Amendment activity, unconnected to any suspicion of criminal activity— becomes a predictor for criminality.
Equally troubling, Silber and Bhatt situate dissent with mainstream American political discourse, and identification with other Muslims, as integral to radicalization. “[A]lienation, discrimination, racism[—]real or perceived”—and “exposure” to “international conflicts involving Muslims,” trigger this stage. “Becoming involved in social activism and community issues” is a signature factor. (835)
This last part especially harkens back to Matthew Levitt’s testimony, in which he claimed those most susceptible to radicalization contain a “cognitive opening” because of their politics. The prosecution pushed as much evidence of Dzhokhar’s religious and political opinions as they could, often to absurd proportions. I’ve discussed a few of his Tweets before, pointing out how the government picked standard Islam-themed statements about prayer and fasting for Ramadan to present as radical. However, there were plenty more entered into evidence that seemed to serve no purpose other than to establish two ideas: one, that he is Muslim and therefore dangerous, and two, that any political expression points to his radical ideals. Take, for example, this Tweet:
Two words written at 3:30 am – about what is objectively a big issue in which many people, not just radicals or Muslims, believe Palestine should have its own state – are presented as somehow being indicative of his radicalization. The government goes a step farther, lumping in any mention of his native country in what I can only assume was an attempt to make him look anti-American. For instance:
This certainly illustrates the idea that in the eyes of law enforcement, any hint of a dissent from a blind American patriotism is viewed with suspicion, and in this case, used as evidence against the defendant. It presupposes that pride in one’s heritage – which for Dzhokhar means being Chechen, indeed a Muslim people – somehow makes him less American. I cannot overstate how this is, on many levels, both ludicrous and downright bigoted. Yet it points to another criticism of law enforcement tactics by Akbar. She says:
The logic of radicalization imposes on Muslims a rigid hierarchy of social relations, or, more plainly, a loyalty question. American and Muslim identities become an either-or proposition: they cannot exist simpatico. By choosing to commune with or feel sympathy for other Muslims, Muslims are seen to choose Islam over America, Muslim identity over American identity. (874)
Further still, I recall one of the few victories granted to the defense in this case came when it was deemed that the prosecution could not use the fact that Dzhokhar is a naturalized American citizen against him. This means that the prosecution would have, if they could, claimed that being born outside the country somehow makes him more likely to turn against America. I can’t help but think that the inclusion of Tweets such as these is a faint echo of that strategy, hoping to incite xenophobia in the jury.
Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the prosecution moved outside social media in an attempt to paint Dzhokhar’s politics as radical. In the effort to make his “path” to radicalization seem longer – in their opening statements, they claimed evidence showed it went back years – they presented a homework assignment from his senior year of high school. A lot of attention was given to this assignment in the guilt phase, as it sported the foreboding title “The Predator War” and was about US drone strikes in Pakistan. Again, this matches the pattern of counter-terrorism strategy condemned by Akbar, the painting of any political dissent as inherently suspicious. When it was first brought up at trial, I thought that really all this proved was interest and perhaps concern for a real, controversial government practice. I was also skeptical of the title, as it seemed a little too poetic for a seventeen-year-old of Dzhokhar’s apparent writing level. It turns out I was right to find it odd: in the penalty phase, the defense called the teacher who gave him that assignment as a witness. She testified that the assignment was not written on an independently picked topic, but merely responses to reading questions she had given about an article in the New Yorker, titled – wait for it – “The Predator War.”
Let me reiterate in different terms. The prosecution, trying to prove Dzhokhar’s radical politics, used a high school homework assignment, on a reading about US drone strikes given to an entire class of students by the teacher, to prove that he was radicalized, even though he had no control over the assignment’s topic or the questions he had to answer. No attention was given to any particular line he had written in the paper – the evidence was solely that he had written it at all. So in fact, this proves nothing about his interests or political leanings. All it proves is that he participated in a class in which the teacher cared to teach her students about real world issues. If I were to use the prosecution’s logic, I’d be surprised she didn’t come under fire for teaching a Muslim student such dangerous, potentially radicalizing ideas. (But the non-Muslim students in the class are, of course, off the hook.)
While I’ve really only scratched the surface of instances in which the government unfairly used Dzhokhar’s religious or political statements against him, in the interest of time I must move on. (I hope to break down more evidence to this effect in supplementary posts at a later date, such as when they attempted to construe a Koran quote tweeted the day of the 2012 Boston Marathon as proof that he was casing the location for next year.) However, these aren’t even the only strategies from the NYPD intelligence report used to target Muslims that found their way into the prosecution’s theory of this case. Yet another flaw pointed out by Akbar sounded all too familiar to me when I read it:
…Certain quintessentially American activities, when engaged in by Muslims, are signs of radicalization. Of course this is the case at higher levels of abstraction for mosque going (church) or protesting the Iraq war (dissent). There are also certain activities that will have heightened significance, especially for young Muslim men: for example, paintball, target practice, and white-water rafting. (878)
Upon reading this, so much became clear to me. For months, I had wondered why, of all things, the prosecution had harped so much on the fact that on one day for an hour, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan had gone to a New Hampshire shooting range. I couldn’t figure out the significance to the case in any way – other than it happened on March 20, so it was about a month before the bombing. The media had certainly run with it, claiming it was evidence they had been “preparing for jihad.” But trust me, I’ve gone shooting at ranges; you’re going to need longer than an hour at it to be prepared for more than completely missing your target. There was no evidence presented of any previous or subsequent trips, suggesting this was more likely an isolated attempt at brotherly bonding when Dzhokhar was home for spring break. Additionally, there was nothing linking this trip to the commission of the crimes. They rented two nine millimeter handguns, suggesting that the Ruger P95 (also a nine millimeter handgun) used by Tamerlan to kill Sean Collier and carjack Dun Meng was either not yet in his possession or had been forgotten. (A curiosity, considering that Dzhokhar was convicted on charges that claimed the Ruger was intended to be used in the bombings and the subsequent April 18th escape attempt.) The icing on this bizarre cake is the surveillance footage presented of the brothers at the shooting range, in which I assumed we would at least see the fearsome young men honing their deadly craft. Instead, we are treated to Dzhokhar milling about the parking lot in a silly hat, kicking at snow while waiting for Tamerlan, not looking especially excited to be there.
Of course, attending a shooting range is a completely legal activity, and there are those in this country who consider the right to bear arms one of the most fundamental American freedoms there is. However, in this case, since the brothers attending the range were Muslim, immediately the correlation to terrorism was made. And while there is evidence that by March 20, 2013, Tamerlan was already collecting and compiling bomb components, there is none that Dzhokhar was helping, or even knew about it. Nothing presented in the exhibits about their trip to the shooting range suggests that he did, either. It is only with the confirmation bias of assumed guilt that anyone can conclude their trip must be linked to the commission of the crimes the following month.
What It All Means
By now, I hope I’ve shed some light on the fallacies present in the prosecution’s argument about Dzhokhar’s motive. Evidence of his religious and political opinions simply cannot stand in for radicalization, nor can the propaganda found on his computer and mobile devices prove that he was a dedicated Jihadist. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the evidence of this sort actually works against the prosecution, since all they managed to truly showcase was that before the crimes Dzhokhar was a regular teenager who also happened to be a Muslim. If they had to scrape the bottom of the barrel so hard, showcasing tweets and homework assignments with the vaguest Islamic and political tinge instead of evidence of participation in the bombing plot, this likely indicates Dzhokhar was never as eager about Jihadism or committing terrorism as the prosecution wanted us to believe.
This brings me back to my original assessment about his two possible motives. If he wasn’t radicalized – and I hope this post shows he wasn’t – then this means he’s not a cartoonish villain, but a regular human being. This regular human being has been described by friends, family and teachers as amiable and well-meaning, so he possesses what we can probably assume is a standard moral center. What would make such a person fall in line with his tempestuous older brother and mutely follow him down a crowded sidewalk, carrying a backpack loaded with explosives? Many things, unfortunately, most of which have been mentioned by the defense: familial and cultural obligation, love for his brother, the passive role in their sibling dynamic, an immature adolescent brain unable to determine what the longterm consequences of his actions might be. But I go a step farther, and advocate what I will continue to believe until someone can prove otherwise: fear. When I wrote my previous post directly after the trial, I was filled with certainty that Dzhokhar was afraid of his brother, afraid of his physical strength, afraid of his temper, afraid of what might happen if he stepped out of line, not just to himself but perhaps Tamerlan’s wife and child as well. But it wasn’t until I started doing research for this entry that I realized it’s likely he was scared of more than just Tamerlan.
One of the main arguments I’ve gotten when trying to propose that Dzhokhar acted under duress is that there is no evidence he tried to get out of the conspiracy and committing the crimes. (This is already a flawed argument to me, because it reminds me of asking, “Why didn’t you fight back?” to a rape victim, but I digress.) While I agree it’s unlikely Tamerlan held a gun to his head (at least not on camera or with witnesses around), taking this as evidence of willing involvement bothers me for a lot of reasons. One question I’ve posed in response is, “What was he supposed to do instead?”
Others have replied, “Say no. Refuse to be involved.”
This seems like an unlikely turn of events to me. One, given the size and strength difference between Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, I can imagine refusal could have easily led to violence or overt threat of violence. Two, as extensively covered at trial, cultural reasons probably would not have welcomed direct resistance. However, this brings me to another option, which would be to agree to Tamerlan’s face, but report him to the authorities when no longer under direct threat. This might even be the most logical possibility to occur to someone of Dzhokhar’s temperament, as it’s been well established that he’s not prone to anger or confrontation.
However, I’ve always thought doing such a thing would be more difficult for someone in his position than most of us coming from an adult and non-Muslim point of view would think. Turning on your own brother, regardless of age and cultural background, is a huge, heart-wrenching thing to do. Considering his brother was the only authority figure left in his life, that sort of upset to the remainder of his family structure – especially while Tamerlan had a wife and two-year-old daughter – would undoubtedly be a big, scary, guilt-ridden decision for a nineteen-year-old to make.
Not only that, but given the current state of terrorism laws in America, handing Tamerlan over to the cops would pretty much guarantee a lifetime of hurt for him, even if technically no crime has been committed yet. Personally, that alone would be enough to keep me silent and just hope that somehow my brother decided not to go through with it on his own. I also wondered if Dzhokhar called up the cops and said, “My brother is building bombs and says he wants to blow up the Marathon,” would this guarantee his own immunity from criminal charges?
I suspect he would be afraid the answer is no, especially coming from a Chechen background where the authorities are always suspect, and living in a post-9/11 America where Muslims are constantly under suspicion. Amna Akbar even places his demographic right at the height of government targeting:
American Muslims—young Muslim men in particular—are likely to find themselves within the ambit of law enforcement scrutiny if they are openly critical of American foreign policy, attend their local mosque or hookah bar, partake in their university Muslim student association, or travel to Muslim majority countries. While they may draw scrutiny by affiliating with other Muslims, the scrutiny follows them as individuals. (872)
A recent community-and-interview-based report documented just such harms stemming from the NYPD Intelligence Division’s surveillance program. Muslims reported feeling pressure to signal their Muslim identity less visibly or differently, to cover, or to pass, in order to avoid state scrutiny. This signaling takes shape in relation to religion, politics, and geography. Muslims do not want to seem too religious: Men shave their beards and women remove their hijabs or niqabs. Or too political: Students stop talking politics in their Muslim student association office and switch out of political science majors. Muslims do not organize or organize differently. They “feel the need to repeatedly emphasize their peaceful position,” or to change how they inhabit Muslim geographies: Muslims go to the mosque less frequently, or only for prayer and not for other community and spiritual activities. (878)
To make matters worse, new antiterrorism laws throughout Europe have resulted in what some human rights group term “institutional discrimination.” Such laws have poisoned relations between religious groups and law enforcement officials so that young European Muslims often bluntly admit that they would not cooperate with the police under any condition for fear of being “databased,” that is, put under surveillance themselves. (146-147)
Putting this all together, I can imagine discovering Tamerlan’s intentions put Dzhokhar in an impossible position, in which each option seemed worse than the one before it. Direct mutiny against his brother might result in his own harm, or the harm of Tamerlan’s wife and daughter. However, reporting the plot to the authorities would undoubtedly rain down terror on himself, his family, and anyone else the authorities might have reason or whim to suspect. (And considering what did happen to a number of people associated with the Tsarnaev brothers, most of whom are currently serving prison sentences for very tangential involvement, I’m not even sure he would have been wrong to worry.) This likely fed his fear about making any attempt to remove himself from the plot, which put him at the mercy of Tamerlan’s inclinations. Due to this combination of factors, it was inevitable for Dzhokhar, like any person with proper motivation, to pick the role he ultimately played in this tragedy: the unhappy but obedient accomplice.
Akbar, Amna. “Policing Radicalization.” UC Irvine Law Review: 3.809 (2013): 809-883.
Aslan, Reza. How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. New York: Random House, 2009.
McCauley, Clark and Sophia Moskalenko. Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
“The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2006.
Silber, Mitchell D., and Arvin Bhatt. “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat.” The New York City Police Department, 2007.
Wen, Patricia and Kevin Cullen. “The Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Live.” The Boston Globe 23 March 2015: Testimony of Matthew Levitt.