As the media obsesses over charges against a group of 19-year-olds, some wonder what the societal function of finger-pointing is, or isn’t.
One month after the detonation of two improvised explosive devices at the 2013 Boston Marathon left three people dead and more than 200 wounded, the network of individuals thought to be involved in the attack continues to expand. Three friends of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been accused of obstructing justice.
For many, the notion of chasing after suspects who — in investigators’ own words — have nothing to do with the planning or implementation of the bombing, seems to be pointless. Others believe that this may be nothing more than a “blame game” — an attempt to extend responsibility for this tragedy beyond the Tsarnaev brothers.
Depending on whom you ask — Fox News decided that “radical Muslim terrorists” were behind the attack, while Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gave ultimate responsibility to the Obama administration — you’ll get one of numerous theories about who or what caused this tragedy.
On Sunday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) — chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — told “Fox News Sunday” that he suspected the Tsarnev brothers were trained. McCaul pointed out that homemade pressure cooker bombs have been used by militants in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, while the Yemen al-Qaida branch has published an online manual on how to construct such a device. McCaul also pointed to the brothers’ mother, saying that she played “a very strong role” in her sons’ radicalization.
Michael Weiser, an attorney and expert in Middle Eastern affairs, defends this position:
“In my mind, there is no question that they were influenced by radical jihadist ideology. All one needs to do is look at their posting on YouTube, Facebook and other social media. They were rife with Islamist posting and videos. Tamerlin, the older brother, traveled to Dagestan, a hotbed of Islamist activity. So in short, based on what we know so far, I think the brothers became radicalized and then decided to execute the terrorist bombing on their own, but as the investigation unfolds, we may find other players or influences.”
During the early days of the tragedy, there was a rush to blame somebody and anybody for this pain and loss of life — despite the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of credible information available. The New York Post is facing a potential lawsuit for the false identification it made in its “Bag Men” story. CNN is still facing blowback from John King’s erroneous on-air announcement that an arrest was made, days before Tsarnaev was captured.
One month later, a suspect is dead. Another is in police custody in a hospital. Still, however, one gets an overwhelming sense from the media that this case is still very much unresolved. In some ways the case bears similarities to the 1963 assassination of former President John F. Kennedy, which saw many refuse to accept that a single man — Lee Harvey Oswald — was able to throw the country into chaos. Instead, many need a larger conspiracy to uncover.
Blame as a healer
Among some experts, however, this “finger-pointing” is a good thing.
“Despite its potential to impair interpersonal relationships, blame can also serve a number of useful functions,” said Neal Tognazzini, a professor of philosophy at the College of William & Mary and author of “Blame: Its Nature and Norms.” “Blame is one way in which we can stand up for the victims of wrongdoing. It’s a way we, as a community, can express our commitment to shared norms of respect, and make clear what we stand for. Such expressions can’t, of course, undo the past, but they can certainly be a means for reminding ourselves who we are and what we want our shared future to look like.”
“From this perspective, the attempt to clarify the events leading up to the Boston bombings can be seen as a way of sending a message, or as a means of communication,” Tognazzini continued. “We want to tell the victims — who include the people most directly affected, of course, but also the millions more whose sense of security has been damaged as a result of the bombings — that we take their injury seriously, but we also want to communicate the broader message that not only is terrorism unacceptable, but so is covering up for one’s friends. It’s very easy for blame to get off track and become merely a way to make blamers feel superior, or to satisfy unhealthy desires for vengeance, but I think it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Dr. Carole Lieberstein, a forensic psychiatrist and media consultant, echoes this sentiment, saying: “We need to dig deeper to find all those connected to the brothers, from his friends who hid his stuff to other terrorists to organized cells. So, I don’t think that this is a blame game. It does, however, seem somewhat like a murder mystery thriller, where we’re playing Sherlock Holmes and identifying with the investigators to solve this crime.”
The Boston bombings and “obstruction of justice”
In criminal complaints filed Wednesday in the Federal District Court in Boston, Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both 19-year-olds, are charged with conspiring to obstruct justice. Robel Phillipos, also 19, is charged with making false statements.
According to the FBI, the three men allegedly went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth after April 18 and took with them a backpack containing fireworks tubes emptied of their gunpowder charges. This backpack and the tubes were later discarded and recovered by investigators at a garbage landfill. The men gave conflicting statements to law enforcement in regard to whether the removal happened before or after Tsarnaev was publicly named a suspect in the bombings.
The complaints do not allege that the men knew of the bombings beforehand or were involved in their planning or implementation. Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev were being held for student visa violations prior to the Wednesday hearing and accordingly did not seek bail. They were ordered held until a May 14 hearing. Phillipos is being held until a detention hearing Monday. While reading the man his Miranda rights, presiding Judge Marianne Bowler admonished Phillipos, stating that “I suggest you pay attention to me rather than looking down.”
According to the narrative presented in court documentation, Tsarnaev told Tazhavakov and Kadyrbayev that he “knew how to make a bomb.” It is unclear if either of the men believed Tsarnaev. Kadyrbayev reportedly last saw Tsarnaev April 17 and noticed that Tsarnaev had cut his hair short. They chatted outside the dorm. When the photos of the Tsarnaev brothers were released a day later, it is alleged that two of the friends thought that one of the photographed men looked like Tsarnaev, and Kadyrbayev texted Tsarnaev to tell him so.
Tsarnaev texted back a flood of messages, including, “lol,” “you better not text me” and “come to my room and take whatever you want.” The trio headed to Tsarnaev’s room, where Tsarnaev’s roommate indicated to them that Tsarnaev had already left. After sticking around to watch a movie, the trio spotted a dark backpack containing seven emptied fireworks tubes. It was Kadyrbayev that decided to take it. They also took a laptop to make the missing backpack appear to be part of a larger theft. The trio immediately regretted the action because they realized that Tsarnaev was a suspect in the bombing, Phillipos said — as alleged by the FBI.
As Kadyrbayev told the FBI, according to the complaints, they “collectively decided to throw the backpack and fireworks into the trash because they did not want Tsarnaev to get in trouble.”
While the trio admits to putting the items in a large trash bag and placing it into a dumpster near Kadyrbayev’s apartment, the statements of the three differ about whether this happened the night of April 18 — prior to the formal identification of Tsarnaev as the accused bomber — or the morning after. If the trio discarded the material the morning after, then the trio can be held responsible for attempting to destroy evidence.
It is unclear where the laptop is.
If found guilty, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov could receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Phillipos could receive eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine.