A trial ends, but Boston will never be the same.

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

Boston Bomber, Killer Without a Cause

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It was sleeting hard in Boston on Wednesday afternoon as the jury returned a guilty verdict on all 30 counts against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for carrying out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed an 8-year-old and two women and wounded at least 260 people.

Somehow the weather seems appropriate, even though it’s after Easter. Throughout this intensely cold, snowy winter in Boston, the specter of the Tsarnaev trial has been a constant and unwelcome reminder that for all its liberalism and toleration, this city isn’t immune from the troubles that plague the rest of the world.


The verdict wasn’t in question. Not only was Tsarnaev recorded on camera placing a bomb at the marathon finish line, his lawyers admitted early in the trial that he had done it.

The remaining drama lies in whether he will get the death penalty in the second phase of the capital trial. But the drama of the trial was in trying to determine how a model immigrant who graduated from an excellent Cambridge, Massachusetts, public high school and received a scholarship to a state university came to be radicalized into a motivated jihadi.

Although the defense has already begun arguing that Tsarnaev was radicalized under the influence of his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with the police, the story clearly is more complicated. For one thing, we now know that four days after the bombing, when police surrounded a boat where Tsarnaev had sought refuge, he had become a fully converted, articulate exponent of violent jihadism.

The most striking revelation of the trial was the document he composed on the boat’s fiberglass interior after he had been wounded and thought he might die. Tsarnaev recited the core justification for violent attacks on civilians: that the U.S. was responsible for killing innocent Muslims, and that this crime authorized the killing of innocents who would otherwise be protected under Islamic law.

Even Tsarnaev seemed to recognize the formulaic nature of this claim. When mentioning U.S. violence, he wrote, “but most of you already know that.” Nevertheless it seemed important to him to shed some light on our actions.”

The trial also revealed that Tsarnaev had effectively flunked out of college and lost funding and would have had to drop out at the end of the term. He commented to a friend in writing that he had a fallback plan: achieving the highest levels of paradise. This, too, was a theme in his boat inscription -- the ideal of joining his brother in the part of paradise reserved for martyrs.

How could this have happened in Boston? Tsarnaev wasn’t alienated from his educational surroundings. He prospered in high school, where he had friends and was a member of the wrestling team. His failure in college seems more likely to have been a result of marijuana use than of any limitation on his academic abilities. It would be too easy to say he fits the familiar jihadi paradigm of a youth who reached a point of frustration that in turn fueled alienation. What Tsarnaev hit was more like a bump in the road than an experience of rejection by Massachusetts society. 

It would be very tempting to conclude that, influenced by his brother -- who never adjusted as well to American life and was frustrated when he was barred from the Golden Gloves boxing competition because he wasn't a citizen -- the younger Tsarnaev embraced jihadism as a kind of passing whim. The older brother may have needed a way out. The younger brother did not.

What this means for Bostonians, and perhaps for all Americans, is that we cannot congratulate ourselves that our relatively inclusive, opportunity-producing society is a defense against radicalization and violence.

Nothing more could have been done for Tsarnaev than what the state and society did. He did not need greater integration. He may have needed greater parental support -- but that is beyond the government's power to provide. The sources of rage, desperation and the search for meaning and salvation that fueled the jihadi impulse can’t be cured completely by state action. Tsarnaev could be radicalized in Boston because he could be radicalized anywhere.

In 10 days, the city will again host its marathon, an annual ritual run on Patriot’s Day, itself a local commemoration of the battles at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Tsarnaev brothers chose the event as their target not simply because there would be a lot of people there, but because they were Bostonians who intuitively understood its symbolic value.  

When al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, it was because the twin towers were a symbol known worldwide. The marathon was attacked by local young men because of the event's place in local life. The Tsarnaevs were affected by a global movement, but they weren’t sending a global message. Boston’s cold winter may augur a cold winter for other places in years to come. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net