Confession: I’ve been avoiding talking about the US presidential election on this blog for quite some time. My reasoning for this was that it wasn’t relevant to the facts of Dzhokhar’s case, nor the appeal process. I also know a decent chunk of my readership is outside America, and I didn’t want to clog up my posts with too much political commentary for those of you whom this maelstrom does not directly affect. Finally, I strive to keep my tone optimistic; there’s no point in reading — or writing — about a situation that’s hopeless. And I believe that Dzhokhar’s is not.
That being said, the notion that national politics and Dzhokhar’s case are not linked is not entirely true, as much as I wish otherwise. My research has revealed to me time and again that political aims were the driving force of the prosecution against him: I have a difficult time imagining a sentence so severe for the same circumstances if the defendant had not been Muslim. (The recent acquittal of Ammon and Ryan Bundy for — in some respects — very similar charges did nothing to dispel this.) This speaks to larger issues in this country, especially in the areas of law enforcement and national security. Not to mention, the next president may indeed have a direct effect on the outcome of Dzhokhar’s appeal. There’s still a Supreme Court vacancy to be filled, and the likelihood that his case will be coming up to it within the next eight years is pretty high.
So, on the eve of the election, it seems almost disingenuous for me not to talk about it. I apologize that this has little to do with my ongoing investigation into the case, but please take my word that I am still working on many aspects of it in the background. There’s simply a lot on my more immediate plate at the moment, and the election has been one of them.
I have been thinking about the current direction of America, and I wish I could say it didn’t scare me. Much of the time I feel as though I have to be the fearless one, because for better or worse, there are thousands of you coming to this blog and asking me about the fate of someone I care about very much. I don’t want to let you down, and I don’t want to let Dzhokhar down, either. But I have learned there is a difference between determination and bravado.
There are times when I am very, very scared. I have been this way on and off since the moment I stepped into the courtroom at the start of Dzhokhar’s penalty phase, which was a year and a half ago and still feels like yesterday. It was the first time I saw everything hurtling toward an impossible outcome I wanted nothing to do with, but was powerless to stop. This election has felt similar to that. I am not as naive as I was during Dzhokhar’s trial, when I was still hoping that against all odds the result would not be the horrific mess that it was. Things can and do go badly, often for the people who least deserve it. Usually, they lack the luck to be in the favored few who can rise above: those who have the most money, the most power, and the most favored race and religion. A young working class Muslim immigrant hardly stood a chance.
Of course, I know the comparison is not an even parallel. In the case of Dzhokhar’s trial I was powerless to stop it: I was not on his jury. I wish I had been, but I wasn’t. I was discussing the experience with someone at a writing conference over the summer, and he said, quite insightfully, “You know, you seem like you carry a lot of guilt over this. You have to remember you weren’t the one to sentence him to death.” Which is true, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like mute observation was somehow synonymous with complicity. Still, standing up and making a scene at the time wouldn’t have changed the outcome. I now understand all that comes later — hopefully on the platform I have built here with facts, evidence and compassion.
Tomorrow is Election Day, and unlike Dzhokhar’s trial, I do have a say in the outcome. I have a vote. And the stakes are even higher — for the first time, I feel as though a lot rides on this election for me personally. I think this has to do with a variety of factors: one being that I have finally stabilized in my life as an adult and not just an unsure adolescent. Previous presidential elections hit me when I was still undecided on many issues, and therefore I thought that those with more experience and knowledge could suss it out better than I could. But my view has changed drastically over the last four years. I began working with demographics who were majority immigrants and/or people of color. I lived through what will go down in history as one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. As a result, I became involved in Dzhokhar’s case, and saw in practical application what had always been instilled in me growing up: blindly trusting in authority does not yield ideal results.
Which brings me, finally, to Donald Trump.
So many words have been wasted on this man since the 2016 election cycle started. I hate to even bring him up, as if saying his name might summon him to my doorstep. But there’s no way to rewind and erase this sham of a campaign, and wishing it into oblivion won’t make it so. Instead, let’s talk about it.
For Mr. Trump himself, I have little to say. He has been attacked viciously in the press for months for all manner of offenses, most of them, it seems, rather justified. I won’t waste time on that. Suffice it to say I do not respect him as a person, a businessman, or a budding politician. He seems to find delight in living in ignorance, and as an academic I have no time for people like him.
I am far more concerned about what it is he represents.
On one hand, I find it fascinating. But I am a person who is fascinated by terrorism and the operation of terrorist groups, as well as dictatorships. An interesting case study does not make for an approval rating. Donald Trump embodies a phenomenon that has gone on in the world since the beginning of time. He is a symptom of a much larger problem, and in that regard I am not even surprised by his rise in popularity. It’s the same phenomenon that fuels groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and all manner of other oppressive governments. He has tapped into large scale disillusion, radicalized a certain quantity of people, and is trying to ride the wave of fame to power. The problem with people like that is that once they obtain power, they seldom like giving it up again. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s cartoonish “president,” installed by Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov recently won re-election with 98% of the vote — which might have something to do with the fact that if anyone speaks out against him, even in a locked social media group, his private paramilitary shows up, beats up your family, and burns down your house. He even has his own Apprentice-like reality show in which contestants compete to win leadership positions in government. No wonder Putin is such a buddy to Trump; he’s hoping to have another Kadyrov-like puppet in power in the United States.
On the other hand, I also find Trump’s candidacy insulting. He operates on a plane of existence that has nothing even remotely in common in reality. As I spend my waking hours slogging through transcripts and evidence reports, trying to scrape together the truth that could mean the difference between life and death for Dzhokhar, Trump proudly makes things up as he goes along. In a recent think piece called “The Art of the Lie,” The Economist muses about a new phenomenon it calls “post-truth politics”:
That politicians sometimes peddle lies is not news: think of Ronald Reagan’s fib that his administration had not traded weapons with Iran in order to secure the release of hostages and to fund the efforts of rebels in Nicaragua. Dictators and democrats seeking to deflect blame for their own incompetence have always manipulated the truth; sore losers have always accused the other lot of lying.
But post-truth politics is more than just an invention of whingeing elites who have been outflanked. The term picks out the heart of what is new: that truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance.
This gets at the core of what has been plaguing my days since the outcome of Dzhokhar’s trial. It’s as if, somewhere down the line — for some people at least — the truth stopped mattering. I think this frequently when I review the facts of Dzhokhar’s case: was the jury asleep for some of this? Were they not listening? Or did they simply not care?
Similarly, Trump’s rhetoric reeks of a disrespect for evidence: he spouts what the The Economist calls “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.” Surely the idea that a radical jihadist is coming for your family feels true, especially if you consume the content of certain propaganda-based news stations, but how likely is it, actually? And if there’s no compelling evidence to prove that this person in front of you is one of them, how can you condemn him to die? How can you even convict on some of these charges?
However, I am not here to deride the jury in Dzhokhar’s case, especially so far after the fact. (Although I do wonder, perhaps darkly, that if studies that death-qualified juries tend to skew more authoritarian in their viewpoints are true, how many of the jurors who sat on Dzhokhar’s trial are planning to vote Trump tomorrow.) I simply marvel about how people can be so drawn in by narratives that aren’t backed up by anything concrete. I also acknowledge the irony that in the last year and a half, my obsession with truth has come at odds with the lies spun by the Trump campaign. They seem to believe we live in a country in which immigrants are not to be trusted, Muslims should be banned, bragging about sexual assault is merely “locker room talk,” and our inner-cities are aflame with crime. And if they don’t believe that themselves, they are hoping to rise to power by making vulnerable, uneducated people believe it. That, in itself, might be worse.
I try to imagine myself operating in a Trump America. First, if he did manage to deport undocumented immigrants and ban Muslims, I’d probably be out of a day job, because my classrooms would be empty. Second, if he was able to loosen libel laws, as he does so seem to hate what the free press has to say about him, I’m sure I would not fare very well. I am, after all, advocating for a convicted Muslim terrorist on death row. That’s hardly politically favorable. In some other countries, particularly Russia, writers who seek to criticize the government are often jailed without cause or even assassinated. And Putin is Trump’s model for leadership? Really?
Rational minds may point out that Trump would never be able to enact these things if he tried, that we have checks and balances to prevent him from making them law. That is probably true, but the fact that he’s been able to normalize even its consideration is the troubling part. It’s as if a frightening number of the American populace has no idea how bad things can possibly get. Much of Trump’s claims and behavior are a frightening echo of Germany shortly before Hitler’s domination of Europe and enactment of the Holocaust. While I know that is a slippery slope we might not necessarily go down, refusing to take the signs seriously is dangerous. My own belief that problems could simply work themselves out on their own died in a Boston federal courtroom on May 15th of last year.
Of course, I’m aware that I’m probably preaching to the choir here. If you’re following this blog because you are interested in justice, even for a Muslim immigrant convicted of terrorism — what is likely considered a Trump triple threat — you’re probably already not planning to vote for the man. What I worry about is the apathy that can set in, the disenfranchisement, the idea that maybe none of it matters anyway. Why even bother fighting a system that’s rigged? I certainly am guilty of feeling that way from time to time. If truth seems to matter so little, what’s the point? Why am I breaking my back going line by line through hundreds of pages of transcripts? Why am I retracing steps at crime scenes, trying to see what Dzhokhar might have seen, to understand what he might have done and why?
The answer is simple: because I looked him in the eyes on one of the worst days of his life and, although I couldn’t say so out loud, promised him I would help. I have wondered a lot lately whether I want to define my life by this. Do I want to live every day as if he and I are connected by some very long invisible chain, inexorably linking us together?
And the truth is I already am. There’s no walking away from this and being able to live my life normally. I’m not backing down. I’m seeing this fight through to the end, whatever and whenever that may be. In those terms, the obvious truth is that the fight is going to be a lot easier in a Clinton presidency than a Trump presidency. In the primary, I voted for Bernie Sanders because he opposed the death penalty. Clinton, on paper at least, is still in favor of the federal death penalty. However, I do believe she is a reasonable human being, and if I were to sit down with her to discuss the issue, she would actually listen to what I have to say. I don’t believe the same would be true for Trump. Given his history, I might be lucky to get out of the meeting without being groped.
I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring. I am trying to be cautiously optimistic, as all accredited sources are still putting Clinton several points ahead of Trump. However, I am also aware that a lot of people simply don’t like Hillary Clinton. To that aim, I understand. I have come around on her, but I do think there is validity to the claim that just because Trump is obvious garbage, that doesn’t mean his main opposition should not be carefully vetted. I do think, regardless, that most of Clinton’s supposed offenses are wildly overblown, especially in reference to her emails. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at Dzhokhar’s electronic correspondence and the utter lack of evidence in it, I have long suspected that much like in his case, if a smoking gun hasn’t been found in Clinton’s emails by now, it simply doesn’t exist. I also haven’t been a huge fan of the FBI since I learned they have agents testifying in death penalty trials about Islamic terrorism who can’t properly identify Mecca. Now, however, I’m really unimpressed by the unneeded dust storm James Comey kicked up, especially when the Bureau is still actively investigating whether the Trump campaign has ties to the Russian government. Somehow, they’ve neglected to put out an official letter about that.
Still, I admit that if Clinton was up against an actual viable candidate — if perhaps the choices came down to her or Bernie Sanders, in some alternate universe where the party lines had been reassigned — I could afford to be far more discerning. That’s the real tragedy of this election, in my opinion: the discourse was dragged way, way down, because one of the major party candidates has a kindergartener’s understanding of how the American government works. You can’t even have a useful debate with that.
That doesn’t mean we can give up. I have built this blog on the premise that we can do something that seems impossible. If you are an American who is able to vote, I urge you to get out there and do so. Systems only become rigged if we allow them to be. If you want to help Dzhokhar and fix all the things that are horribly broken about our criminal justice system, you should exercise that right. I can’t tell you who to vote for, but if my experience running this site has taught me anything, it’s that there is strength in numbers. Let your voice be heard; we can and will change things for the better, but only if you’re willing to stand up for what you believe in.
I will be back soon with more updates, including the long-awaited final installment of my investigation into Sean Collier’s murder. Thanks, as always, for reading.