Four years ago today, I wrote a blog post that changed my life.
Boy, time flies.
I know I’ve been quiet for awhile, but I wanted to give a quick recap of the last year, and give a preview to what will appear on the blog in the future.
At lot has happened in the last year in regard to the case. The first appellate brief was filed in December, and by all accounts it looks like our investigation on this site backs up the arguments Dzhokhar’s lawyers are making: “radicalization” was never a factor in this case, that he acted out of duress, and the trial never should have been allowed to occur in Boston. Furthermore, rampant anti-Muslim bias colored the legal proceedings and robbed Dzhokhar of any hope of a fair trial. We’re still waiting on the government’s response to the massive brief, which spans over 1000 pages, but I find this all to be very positive news so far.
In the mean time, the investigation continues. Although the blog has been quiet, behind the scenes the work I’m putting into this case is more substantial than ever. I’m writing my Master’s thesis about it, which will be finished in June when I graduate (fingers crossed). I am focusing on the effects of Orientalism and Islamophobia on the narrative that was produced about Dzhokhar and his role in the Boston Marathon bombing. To do this, I am examining his interaction with law enforcement, particularly the text of the hospital confession that was unsealed on the court docket last October; the story about him as presented by the prosecutors at trial (and also the defense); and the media coverage of the case at its inception point in April 2013 and throughout the 2015 trial. Everything is still a work in progress right now, and two of my professors have already said I could (and should) write a book(!) with the amount of stuff I have to talk about, but I’m getting there.
I’m planning to release my thesis research on this site when I’m finished, probably altered slightly to be more blog-friendly, and with additional content, especially regarding the hospital confession. My adviser recommended I cut down some of what I had in my initial draft because I was focusing too much on arguing against Dzhokhar’s guilt, which… yes, I 100% admit to doing that. I’m more legal-minded than I realized, who knew? I do find this to be the most important part of the thesis: that there are all these forces fueling a negative, inaccurate view of Muslims, and as a result, an innocent person is sitting on death row. Although my early drafts are messy, they’ve produced some really useful things. For instance, I transcribed the entire hospital confession from the court docket’s PDF: Dzhokhar’s notes, the FBI agents’, and their typed 302s. Looking at all of it side by side has been really eye-opening. I also think I may have finally cracked the mystery of the boat note, the biggest thorn in my side these last few years. More to come on that.
I have discussed Islamophobia on this blog in the past, but very little about what Orientalism is and why it’s relevant to Dzhokhar’s case (unless you’re an avid follower of me on social media, as I think I’ve mentioned it on Twitter). Orientalism is a theory put forth by an English literature scholar who originally hailed from Palestine, Edward Said. He wrote an incredible book about it in 1978 which spawned the entire field of post-colonial studies. His work has been absolutely essential to my understanding not just of what happened to Dzhokhar, but how terrorism (and why it’s assumed to be something committed by Muslims) is perceived in this country. Unfortunately, unlike Islamophobia, Orientalism is not widely discussed outside of academic circles. The two are linked, but while Islamophobia is an attitude that views Muslims as a threat to Western civilization, Orientalism is far more widespread and deep-seated. It is born from centuries of Western colonization and domination of the Islamic East (known at one time as “the Orient”), and has not only spawned a number of negative stereotypes about Muslims and Muslim countries, but effects everything that is known in the West about Islam and Muslims. This is because until very recently in history, Muslims did not have the power to question these prejudiced notions about themselves. This phenomenon is not unique to Muslims, of course – it’s how inaccurate derogatory stereotypes arise and persist about all oppressed groups of people. However, in Orientalism it’s tied to how the “center” of civilization is considered the West, and creates that split between the West and the East that is entirely imaginary. Even though colonialism is officially over, these attitudes persist in the people and institutions who get to say what is “true” about things that directly effect Muslims, like foreign and domestic American policy.
This is extremely relevant to Dzhokhar’s case, because the narrative about what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing has always been dominated by the US government: by law enforcement, particularly the FBI, and then the federal prosecutors at trial. Finally getting a hold of the hospital confession notes was instrumental for my understanding of how the FBI operates in this context. There was no attempt to get Dzhokhar’s side of the story – they were actively feeding him their own idea of what happened, and then would not leave him alone until he repeated it back to them. And then, he did it so poorly, that the agents actually returned for a second interview, during which they didn’t let him write notes at all, and simply wrote the story for him with more “details” they had gathered from other parts of the investigation.
This is how “knowledge” about terrorism is produced, then is taken as true without question, and colors everything that comes after. It’s an ominous echo chamber, fueled by stereotypes the FBI already believed about someone like Dzhokhar. Once law enforcement had their Muslim brothers fueled by religious fervor, there was no need for them to ask the more logistical questions I’ve spent the last four years trying to answer. This isn’t even particularly uncommon when it comes to law enforcement practices, either. The Innocence Project details exactly how easily false confessions can contribute to wrongful convictions. While it isn’t always Orientalism that feeds them, similar factors like racial bias certainly do.
And Orientalism goes deep. Deeper than I ever feared. As deep as other harmful prejudices like racism and sexism, topics that are getting a lot more air time in the current political era. I think bringing Orientalism into the public conversation is absolutely essential if we’re ever going to stop things like what happened to Dzhokhar from happening again. Unfortunately, openly discussing Orientalism means acknowledging the colonial legacy of the European powers, and that America, in the decades since World War II, has continued this legacy of domination through its foreign policy practices (i.e. the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc). Hence, there’s a lot of political incentive to keep the concept out of the minds of the public. Instead, we are told stories about the scary Muslims coming to our shores, so that will make us support draconian “national security” measures to keep us safe.
The social science-y bits aside, the case investigation has been continuing. There’s still lots to unravel on the front of what happened the week of April 15, 2013 and why. We’ve been working for some time to recreate the events that transpired the night of April 18th, especially now that we have the likelihood of third party involvement. I also suspect we’ll be diving into the 2011 Waltham triple murders, because Dzhokhar’s appellate brief makes it clear that case and Tamerlan’s potential involvement in it is a lynch pin to understanding what happened at the Marathon two years later.
But that will have to wait until after graduation, once I have a chance to relocate back to Boston. I’ve been terribly homesick these last couple of years. The distance was needed to give me some perspective, but what has driven this project is my love for the city and my desire to see all of its residents treated equally. Even in the early days of the bombing aftermath, I thought often: Dzhokhar is one of us too. Is that so easy to forget?
It will be good to be home.
I have other things planned, for the blog, for ways to amplify the truths I’ve been uncovering, and some extras that might be cool if I can make them work in the meantime. If I can get my professors on board, I’d love to do a podcast miniseries about what I learned in grad school, to give some better context to the stuff I’m talking about here. Hopefully that might make the wait I’ve put you through worthwhile.
Speaking of the wait, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has stuck with me since the beginning, or has found this blog in the years since Dzhokhar’s trial. It’s hard to believe it was four years ago already. My biggest fear was that once the media sensation of the trial faded, he would fade from memory too. I worried the injustice done to him would be swept under the rug with all the other world’s injustices. But I just broke 10,000 site visitors, and am nearing 40,000 total hits worldwide. This means not only are there a lot of you out there, but you usually stick around to read several pages at a time. For a case that’s been “over” for years now, seeing that it maintains consistent interest means so much to me. I hope one day I can tell Dzhokhar just how many people cared enough about him to want to learn the truth.
But for now, it’s getting late, and there’s more work to be done tomorrow.
As always, thanks for reading, and stay tuned.