Mimesis Law
17 August 2019

Tsarnaev’s Sorry, Sincerely or Strategically

June 25, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Moments before the sentence of death was officially imposed on Dzohkar Tsarnaev, he did something few anticipated, and fewer still believed.  He apologized for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for the damage that I’ve done — irreparable damage,” Mr. Tsarnaev, 21, who is originally from Kyrgyzstan, mumbled softly in heavily accented English.

“I’m guilty of it. If there is any lingering doubt of that, let it be no more,” he said.

There was really no serious “lingering doubt” of his guilt, and, indeed, Judy Clarke’s valiant defense at trial was less to show that he didn’t commit the crimes with his brother, Tamerlan, than to show the relationship between the two.  The crux was to prevent his execution, to show that he was young, stupid, under the influence of his radicalized older brother and therefore should be spared.

The effort failed. The jury found that Dzhohkar deserved to die.

But the fact that he fessed up at sentence, knowing that it would have no impact on what Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. would do, was striking.  Why admit it? Why now? And most importantly, why apologize?

It’s more than fair to question the sincerity of the apology.  After all, there was plenty of time to feel empathy for those who would be harmed, who would die, at his hand before he decided to engage in the bombing.  He cared nothing for the future victims then. Did he now, as he was about to be sentenced to death, suddenly give a damn?

There was a strong, tactical purpose to Tsarnaev’s epiphany.  The death sentence will be appealed, with all the vigor it deserves.  No doubt there will be zealous argument before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging both the penalty itself, an issue that doesn’t often arise in Boston, as well as its application to Tsarnaev.

In the course of that argument to prevent another death, one of the issues will be whether Dzhohkar is sufficiently evil, the “worst of the worst,” such that putting him to death at our government’s hands is a proper end to this tragedy.  There is no question that the bombing was horrific, the manifestation of evil in a city that never expected such a joyous event to end with such bloodshed. But it’s not just about the act. It’s about the actor as well.

By admitting his guilt, by offering his apology to those he killed and maimed, Dzhohkar broke his silence and, for the first time in the course of his case, offered a view as to him as a person.  He did not do so defiantly, angrily, but humanely.  He showed that as evil as his conduct was, he was still human.  He was not unsalvageable.  He was not the worst of the worst.

If he meant it.

“I prayed for Allah to bestow his mercy upon the deceased, those affected in the bombing and their families,” he said. “Allah says in the Quran that with every hardship, there is relief. I pray for your relief, for your healing, for your well-being, for your strength.”

There is something a bit off kilter in this statement, if Dzhohkar was sincerely trying to bring comfort and closure to the families of those he killed.  His focus was directed at himself, his religious beliefs, rather than theirs. It would be fair to assume that the families who lost their loved ones so that the Tzarnaev brothers could somehow please their insane grasp of what their deity wanted of them would not be particularly interested in Dzhohkar’s prayers.

If anything, this smacks of disingenuousness, while it purports to be suggest that he is trying to be sympathetic.  Of course, facing his own death, Tsarnaev had good reason to spend a lot more time praying. Not that it would necessarily help.

Yet, it’s the very tone-deafness, the ham-handedness, of this apology that leads one to think it might be more sincere than strategic.  Had this been a tactical construct, surely the defense would have done a better job of it, preparing a statement that wouldn’t have suggested that Tsarnaev was more fixed on his own beliefs than those of his victims.

Two dozen people who were directly affected by the bombing gave statements Wednesday. Many were angry. Some called Mr. Tsarnaev a coward and a failure. A few said they forgave him. And many said they still could not fathom the depth of cruelty that led him to destroy innocent lives.

Everyone knew they would be there, knew they would express their pain, their loss, and would remain to hear what Dzhohkar Tzarnaev had to say in return.  It’s unlikely that anything he would say would prove comforting to the victims and their families. It wasn’t in his power to change the impact of what he did.

But at sentence, even when it’s pre-ordained, the defendant is entitled to make a statement, and Dzhohkar took advantage of the opportunity.  He could well have screamed of jihad, of the western devil or his acceptance of the price for doing what he thought his deity demanded of him.  He did not.

Was this really an expression of sorrow, a recognition that what he did was truly cruel and awful?  Perhaps it was, as it surely fell short if it was meant to show the appellate court that he isn’t so evil as to require execution.  But like most apologies offered at sentencing, it’s too little too late, even if it is sincere.

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