An exhaustive new report, submitted by Heather Frizzell for her master’s thesis at the University of Washington, explores the ways in which law enforcement, the mainstream media, and federal prosecutors manufactured prejudicial myths against Muslims in general and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in particular.
This article is intended to introduce and summarize the findings of my academic thesis. Forthcoming is also a three-part podcast series about the research. If you would like to jump right to the text of the thesis itself, you may do so via this link:
(Content warning: While not explicit, some photos in this article depict the injuries sustained by Dzhokhar at the hands of law enforcement, including a fair amount of blood.)
From this site’s inception, the purpose of my research project was simple: question the narrative presented about the Boston Marathon bombing as presented at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death penalty trial in 2015, and if it was wrong, find and report the objective truth. Right away, the facts uncovered by our independent investigation clashed with that of the official narrative, leading us to the conclusion that Dzhokhar (“Jahar”)* was wrongfully convicted. But why? Why did it seem like the world at large was satisfied with a story of a young Muslim male becoming radicalized on the internet and committing religiously inspired terrorism at the 2013 Boston Marathon?
This thesis answers that question.
What is a “regime of truth”?
The term “regime of truth” was coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and as a concept is useful for understanding how the official story of the Boston Marathon bombing came to be. According to Foucault, this sort of truth does not refer to a universal Truth supported by irrefutable facts. Instead, the “regime of truth” is dependent on people in a position of power who are able to determine what counts as true. This is what gets disseminated to the public and becomes “known.” As I state in the thesis, “Knowledge is power, but power is also knowledge.”
In modern American society, who holds this power? Usually, it’s the government, as well as the press. Therefore, in order to understand how so many people got the story of the Boston Marathon bombing so wrong, we must look to three institutions involved in shaping it: law enforcement, mainly the FBI; the federal prosecutors who tried Jahar; and the media who reported on the bombing, its aftermath, and the court case.
The single most important factor that shaped the story about Jahar by is an ingrained prejudice against him for being Muslim. These prejudices and the beliefs they produce are formed mostly by a phenomenon called Orientalism, although Islamophobia plays a part as well.
Orientalism and Islamophobia: What are they? What’s the difference?
Before starting my graduate program at UW, I had heard of Islamophobia, and had even written about it in relation to Jahar’s prosecution. It’s more well-known in the public imagination than Orientalism by far. I had maybe heard of Orientalism, a word that echoed dimly in my mind from a long-ago college seminar. However, I learned quickly that in the social science annals of academia, Orientalism is as well-known as the alphabet. It’s a shame there’s not more widespread knowledge about it, because it explains a lot, particularly in relation to the last few decades of American foreign policy. Here is a brief explanation.
Orientalism is a concept coined by scholar Edward Said in his 1979 book of the same name (which is commercially available and definitely worth a read if you want a deeper dive on the forces at work in Jahar’s case). Orientalism breaks the world into a false binary, consisting of the West (the “Occident”) on one end, and the East (the “Orient”) on the other. Said posits that everything that is “known” about the Orient comes through the lens of Western colonialism of the chiefly Islamic East. And it’s true: for hundreds of years, Western European powers colonized and subjugated Muslim regions in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, considering the people under their rule less than human. As a result, all the “knowledge” that was “produced” (in the West, which is considered the authority on the matter) about “the Orient” and its people for decades upon decades has been tainted with this prejudice. As Said argues, no discipline is free from this: it colors the sciences, the arts, politics and policymakers, the whole works.
Yes, in recent decades, with official de-colonization and more representation of marginalized people in these fields, there have been some efforts to challenge these Orientalist narratives. However, I discovered that it’s nowhere near as reformed as it should be – especially when it comes to American foreign policy.
This is where Islamophobia comes in. While the word implies a fear of Islam and Muslims, a deeper meaning, especially when one examines how it is weaponized, is at play. Islamophobia is a view of Islam as the enemy, particularly as an enemy to “the West” (often categorized as having “Judeo-Christian values,” even though there is no official category of religion with this distinction). Islam is depicted as an enemy that can never be “compatible” with democracy and therefore must be defeated at all costs. Orientalism and Islamophobia have been a component of American foreign policy for decades, although post-9/11, the Bush administration used them to great effect to craft the policies of the War on Terror.
In short, while the United States was not a Western European power that practiced colonialism prior to the 20th century, its actions in Muslim regions in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have absolutely furthered this agenda. However, it is rarely framed this way in public conversations – and I suspect this is because doing so would force us as Americans to reckon with our country’s role in the world as neocolonialists. The government certainly has a vested interest in framing the issue differently: if these Muslim “terrorists” are the “enemy,” surely everything necessary must be done in order to keep the country safe, mustn’t it?
This logic ignores a fundamental reality that became irrevocably clear to me when I began to study international relations: the United States is the most powerful country in the world, by far. The notion that any tiny insurgent group struggling to hold territory half a world away could pose a legitimate threat to the continued existence of our nation is just silly. Yet, the exaggerated threat of what these disparate groups could do to us has kept the United States in interventionist wars in these regions for nearly twenty years. This has allowed the US military to control – or at least attempt to – the states in these regions that exist outside the supposed “terrorist” organizations. President Trump even openly supports such things as mining the resources of these areas, a classic colonialist exercise.
To mask these ulterior motives, the focus of the War on Terror narrative has been on the danger of Muslim terrorists, so that the American public would value personal safety over the inhumane treatment of the “other” from the East.
So where does Jahar Tsarnaev fit in here?
It’s complicated. However, it also makes for an interesting case study, because Jahar as an individual – an individual I’ve tried very hard to depict fairly on this blog – fits so poorly into the standard War on Terror narrative. He’s not even from the quintessential “Muslim” place in the American imagination, the Middle East. He’s from Chechnya, of Chechen and Dagestani descent. Both Chechnya and Dagestan are Muslim regions of the Caucasus that have been colonized by Russia. Orientalism toward Russia is its own complex matter. In the eyes of Western Europe, Russia itself has traditionally been viewed just as “backward” and “savage” as the rest of the “Orient.” Russian Orientalism is even more complex: Russia was its own colonial power, and the legacy of domination over the Muslim parts of the Russian empire is its own fraught issue. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. American Orientalism is not nearly this nuanced.
I quickly learned in my research that individuals don’t matter to these type of Orientalist narratives. In fact, considering people as individuals is antithetical to them. It wasn’t important to the US government that Jahar is from Russia and not the Middle East: he’s Muslim, and that’s all that mattered. The government has worked hard to paint all “Muslim terrorists” with as broad a brush as possible, so that they can be properly dehumanized and denied their rights. If Muslim terrorists weren’t the enemy, but a group of Jahars – let’s say, for instance, scared teenagers giving blood-soaked and unarmed surrenders after nearly being murdered by law enforcement – these policies wouldn’t have been rubber-stamped by the public following 9/11.
By the logic of the government’s narrative, Jahar is a radicalized Muslim terrorist, delighting in gore and mayhem, and – in the long-standing Orientalist tradition – the only language he understands is force. Hence the utter brutality displayed toward him from the moment he was identified as a suspect until the moment he was sentenced to death; a brutality that, although there’s been marginal improvement, still persists (consider the kerfuffle about letting a terrorist vote earlier this year and the recent tweet from President Trump lamenting that our lax legal system has allowed Jahar to “still be around” ). In the response to 9/11, Americans were conditioned by the government to consider the Muslim terrorist a special kind of monster, one that doesn’t deserve empathy – or even close scrutiny. Never mind the list a mile long I’ve published over the years, pointing out all the discrepancies in the evidence against Jahar, the existence of accomplices to Tamerlan who could take the blame instead of him, the dozens of character witnesses at trial who testified that he would never hurt a fly. None of that matters to this government narrative. It’s inconvenient, and would get in the way of the neocolonial project that is the War on Terror.
What did your research reveal about how this narrative of Jahar was constructed?
First, I learned to think of the response to Boston Marathon bombing not as an isolated incident, but as part of a larger whole: post-9/11 counterterrorism in the United States. I was able to trace the policies that were put in place to police Muslims as part of the War on Terror, both domestically and abroad. After that, Jahar’s treatment as a terrorism suspect, which had long seemed to hinge on his religion, began to make more sense to me.
I also learned a lot about the flow of information, or rather, misinformation. As someone with an artistic core, I have always been obsessed with truth – a universal, capital-T Truth. However, in researching my thesis, I saw how easy it is for inaccuracies and flat-out lies to spread and be accepted as truth.
The inception point for this was law enforcement, particularly the FBI. My data collection revealed several points where the FBI agents investigating the case relied on prejudicial assumptions about Islam, instilled in them via their training. This allowed them to make judgment calls about Jahar before he was even taken into custody. In fact, the narrative that was later adopted by Jahar’s defense team – that he was an “impressionable” recruit of his “overbearing” older brother Tamerlan – was first pitched by the FBI to the Boston Globe on April 19th, pre-dating the discovery that Jahar was hiding in a boat in a Watertown backyard. I found this characterization of “Muslim terrorists” in a 2006 FBI counter-terrorism manual almost verbatim, proving that this profile of Tamerlan and Jahar was not based on actual police work, but derogatory stereotypes about Muslims.
This was not the only incident of incorrect sourcing from the FBI to the media. I found several instances in print journalism in the days following the bombing that misrepresented, whether subconsciously or by design, details about the bombing itself and the events of April 18, 2013 that are not backed up by the later court record. In each instance, the cruelty and violence attributed to Jahar (and at times, even Tamerlan as well) is exaggerated, including erroneous details: that both brothers wielded guns; that Jahar issued threats toward the carjacking victim, Dun Meng (who later testified that Jahar was not present when Tamerlan accosted him); the mischaracterization of Jahar’s behavior in surveillance footage as cold and ruthless; and even the content of his supposed “confession” left in the boat. Each inaccurate detail backs up Orientalist stereotypes attributed to Muslim males – that they are savage, violent, uncontrollable, and willing to commit any barbarity for the sake of Allah.
Thus, the flow of misinformation began with law enforcement, and was picked up and amplified by the mainstream media with no critical lens. In some cases, the media even added further exaggeration and Orientalist framing. One example is the coverage of the bombing written by Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe. His reporting was revealed in 2018 to contain outright fabrications that resulted in his suspension from the paper. In addition to this, I discovered concerted efforts on Cullen’s part to frame the “good guys” in the bombing coverage as the first responders and law enforcement, while unfairly depicting Jahar as a violent Muslim foreigner. Cullen also divides the world into the “us” versus “them” of the false Orientalist binary, depicting Boston as the “West” and Tamerlan and Jahar as the invading “Islamic East.”
Once this narrative was out there in the media, it bounced around the echo chamber right up until and through Jahar’s 2015 death penalty trial. By this point, the coverage of the case was so widespread and negative that his lawyers repeatedly requested a change of venue, but were denied. This, plus actual tainted members on the jury that Judge O’Toole refused to remove, forced Jahar’s defense team to play into the Orientalist stereotypes out there about him instead of trying to combat them. Knowing that the jury could never be impartial toward Jahar and give him the presumption of innocence, they tried to play on the jury’s presumptions of guilt. This further solidified the Orientalist narrative against Jahar in a bid to save him from the death penalty.
Unfortunately, it did not work. Not only did the jury sentence him to death, but the media coverage of the case largely repeated the prosecution’s version of events as if it was fact (disregarding the defense’s version, even though it originally came from the FBI’s investigation of the case). The prosecutors presented a version of Jahar who was even more aggressive, zealous, and bloodthirsty than originally thought by law enforcement. They depicted a radicalized Muslim who was “independently involved” in the attacks, gleefully targeting children near the finish line (despite the surveillance footage showing he didn’t notice them) in order to justify a death sentence. This Orientalist narrative supplanted even the prior Orientalist narrative, ensuring the actual facts remained buried far underground.
This is what I mean by “regime of truth.”
What other major takeaways do you have to share from your research?
There’s a lot of things that rattled around in my brain while I was researching and writing my thesis, but didn’t necessarily make it into the text itself. Here’s a few of them that I thought blog readers might appreciate.
- There’s been a lot of speculation out there in the ether about whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an informant for the FBI prior to the bombing. I had found no evidence of that before my graduate research, and having reviewed the publicly available information about the FBI’s investigation, I think my findings actually contradict this idea. Over and over, all I found from the FBI was that they knew painfully little about Jahar and Tamerlan except that they were Chechen Muslims. In fact, the FBI did not even seem interested in learning more. The hospital confession in particular is riddled with evidence that the agents were there to dictate their own version of events to Jahar and get him to sign off on a confession that would convict him. If the FBI knew literally anything about Tamerlan through prior interaction with him, I think it would have showed.
- When I published information last year about the likelihood that Tamerlan had unnamed accomplices, I often lamented to myself how absurd it seemed that the FBI could have missed the existence of these accomplices. I didn’t fully understand how this was possible until I did the research and writing for my thesis. After Tamerlan and Jahar were named as suspects, it’s clear the FBI was not looking for other accomplices. They had two Muslim brothers they could identify as “lone wolves.” What more did they need? This is an example of how Orientalist thinking – and relying on stereotypes based on race, sex, and so on in general – actually impedes good policing. Once Jahar was arrested, the FBI announced that the threat to public safety was over, which in hindsight was probably premature. Then, the agents interrogating Jahar in the hospital had a narrow window of time in which to ask him whether others were involved. Based on their notes, that isn’t even a line of inquiry they were interested in. The data clearly shows two separate interviews in which the agents arrived to impose their own version of events on Jahar, who was in no condition to give consent or provide reliable information. The narrative foisted upon Jahar by these agents is a story of just the two brothers, containing some downright absurd details, such as that gunpowder was cut from fireworks to construct the explosives.
Even the questions that give lip service to the idea that Tamerlan might not have acted alone are not framed in any practical manner. Instead of “Who was he working with?” the questions amount to “Who was he inspired by?” This plays into the lone wolf narrative of Muslims not working in a tangible network, but taking indirect “inspiration” from groups overseas like al-Qaeda or ISIS. (Very convenient too, as it prevents law enforcement from having to prove a causal link between any one terrorist group and any one individual actor in order to convict.) This was a fanciful determination of counter-terrorism policymakers long before it was applied to Jahar and Tamerlan. This case is littered with examples of law enforcement’s own bigoted beliefs being taken as fact. These assumptions are then used to further an inaccurate narrative of who “Muslim terrorists” are and how they operate.
- Realizing the above helped me to finally understand what was going on in Jahar’s “boat note.” I do write about this in my thesis, and I really break down how I came to my conclusions in our upcoming podcast mini-series, but I think it’s so important it must also be mentioned here.
The note written on the walls of the boat by Jahar before his capture was one of the most damning pieces of evidence presented against him at trial. This is because it depicts, in his own handwriting, a confession to the crimes and an explanation of motive. However, that “motive” consists of the exact thing I’ve spent countless hours in my thesis calling out as inaccurate stereotypes: that his and Tamerlan’s acts of violence were done in pursuit of the glory of Paradise and in service of Allah, etcetera. So if it’s true that those notions are Orientalist nonsense, why would Jahar claim in his note to believe them?
I was stumped until I got my hands on the full text of the hospital confession notes last year. In studying it, I recognized some of the language the FBI agents were forcing upon Jahar: the same so-called “jihadist rhetoric” that Jahar used in the boat note. However, it was obvious in the hospital confession that he was being coerced to write these things after many hours of badgering. That’s when I realized that in all my scrutiny of Jahar’s communications, he only espouses this “jihadist rhetoric” twice, in the hospital confession and in the boat note. That is, while interacting with law enforcement.
This rhetoric isn’t something that radicalized Muslims believe. It’s something that law enforcement believes that radicalized Muslims believe. I also checked – while we have notes from the FBI agents of the hospital interrogations, there’s no transcript of the FBI’s supposed “negotiation” with Jahar in the hours between his discovery in the boat in Watertown and his arrest. However, early reporting on the arrest claims that he was writing the note “as law enforcement closed in on him,” which sure is an odd time to be struck with the urge to write out the exact information that could lead to your conviction at trial. There is evidence of other law enforcement contamination, including unnatural turns of phrase and certain details that Jahar had no way of knowing on his own, such as that his brother was already dead. Considering all this, it has to be that Jahar was not writing this supposed manifesto of his own free will.
Most importantly, this means that if the hospital confession was deemed an involuntary confession and was thrown out from the case, the boat note should be as well. In the event of a retrial, it should be excluded from the court record entirely.
This is just a brief overview of the findings in my thesis. If you’re interested in the summary presented here, I invite you to read the text itself. There’s lots more about the FBI’s investigation, Jahar’s forced hospital confession, the boat note, the media coverage, the narratives presented by both the prosecutors and the defense at trial, the harmful quality of the “expertise” provided by the government’s “terrorism experts,” and how prejudicial Orientalist thinking defined everything that is publicly known about Jahar. If you didn’t catch it at the beginning, here is another link.
In addition to this article, we have recorded a three-part podcast miniseries about the research, writing, and conclusions that are presented in the thesis, as well as some extra stuff. These will be released weekly starting next week, to give you some time to read, listen and digest everything.
If you have questions or comments about the research, I invite you to reach out so that we can record a Q&A podcast episode once everything is out there.
When Foucault wrote about the regime of truth, he was pretty pessimistic about whether anything could be done to counter it. However, I disagree with the idea that the regime of truth is absolute. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, having no concept of how accessible vast quantities of information would be in the decades to come. My own experience speaks volumes: I cared enough about Jahar to look for answers, and I found them and shared them. If a regime of truth is impenetrable, why does my blog still have readers? It’s been almost five years since Jahar’s trial. Yet people still care about justice and the capital-T Truth. If you’re reading this, you also stand in defiance of the regime of truth. Historical precedent shows that if enough people care, we can move the needle.
I want to take the time to thank everyone who has read and followed this blog since it began. I have come a long way since that day in April 2015 when I stumbled into a courtroom just trying to understand what was going on. That is absolutely because of sustained interest. I hope going forward I can provide more informed material and a higher calibre of analysis. Jahar’s case is far from over. I hope my contribution can help him get a new trial, and this research educates the public on the wider dangers of systemic discrimination against Muslims.
(* Longtime readers might notice I’ve shifted in my spelling of Jahar’s name. It’s a practice I picked up when writing my thesis, due to certain practical and personal reasons. When writing web content in the past, I opted to use the official spelling “Dzhokhar,” deeming it to be the most mainstream spelling that would yield the highest site traffic. While writing the thesis, I grew accustomed to using the Anglicized spelling “Jahar,” not only out of respect for his own preference, but because I realized this helped everyone I was discussing the research with pronounce his name correctly. Going forward I will briefly note both spellings, to satisfy both the search algorithm and my desire for everyone to know Jahar’s name and how to say it. It’s easy to dehumanize a person whose name you can’t pronounce.)