On Thursday December 18, as Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared for a pre-trial hearing in Boston federal court, a group of protesters gathered outside holding signs either expressing support for Tsarnaev, or meant to cast doubt on the legal proceedings at work. Inside, Elena Teyer, the mother in law of Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev who was killed by federal agents in Florida this year, was being escorted out of the courtroom. “Stop killing innocent people!’ she yelled. “Stop killing innocent boys!’’
Seated next to her inside was a woman who goes by the name Karina Goddessina, a performance artist from New York City. “Elena went into a Russian outburst towards Jahar telling him we support and are praying for him, and that we know he’s innocent,’’ she told me. “He turned slightly towards us and smiled.’’
Among the protesters outside was a woman named Valerie Vanetta, a 23 year old from Philadelphia, who held a sign showing pictures of the bags alleged to have held the bombs in question. “These bags are not these bags, #you’rewelcome’’ it read.
Much to the protesters’ chagrin, their efforts, Tsarnaev’s defense team has argued, may have actually had the opposite effect. In a motion filed on December 22, they claim that the presence of the protesters — and in particular an incident in which a woman named Karin Friedmann was seen in a confrontation with Marc Fucarile, a man who lost a leg in the attack — will have a prejudicial effect on the potential jury pool.
So just what is it Tsarnaev’s supporters and the Boston Marathon bombing’s so-called “truthers’’ are trying to accomplish?
Skepticism spreads among supporters
Vanetta’s thinking on the aftermath of the bombing has come a long way since April 15, 2013. She was at work at the store she manages in Philadelphia when she heard the news of the attacks.
“Of course, like everyone else, I was shocked and appalled,’’ she said. Initially she didn’t question any of the details being reported by the media. “I assumed it was a horrible tragedy someone committed, and I didn’t think much about it. Then when I heard they found the suspect, I was like, ‘Good for them, that’s impressive.’’’
Once the identities of the Tsarnaevs were released, along with images purporting to show the bags that they used to transport bombs to the scene, she was given pause. “When they showed the pictures of the suspects, they weren’t wearing bags that looked like what they had shown.’’
Vanetta, who helps to administrate the Facebook group “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is innocent – Free Jahar,’’ a page with 14,634 members, tells a story that’s common among his supporters, many of whom I’ve been in touch with in the lead up to Dzhokhar’s forthcoming trial in January — not to determine the veracity of their claims so much as to understand what, if anything, the thousands of people around the world who share their similar beliefs might have in common.
It turns out that the types of people questioning the details of the bombings released by officials and shared through the media are as far-ranging as the points of contention themselves, which range from the reasonably skeptical to the convolutedly bizarre. While it’s tempting to dismiss Vanetta – who, like many of the others I spoke or emailed with were eager to share their stories, but also suspicious of the mainstream media’s motives – as a wacky conspiracy theorist, that’s something of an oversimplification. Certainly there are very many unhinged crackpots among their ranks, but many are a lot more normal than you might expect.
Vanetta said she was never much of a political person before the bombings, but describes herself as conservative-leaning independent now. “It’s definitely newer for me. I didn’t feel like I had reason to question things before, and I would find it annoying when people did. But I didn’t take time to look into what was being argued.’’
She’s communicated with hundreds of members of her Facebook group, and said they come from a broad spectrum of types.
“It’s kind of a global group, with any number of people that believe he didn’t commit the crime for any number of reasons.’’
Some suggest the event didn’t even happen in the first place, a stance that everyone I spoke to dismissed as even too far-fetched for them. Others consider the “official narrative’’ — a phrase that comes up frequently in these circles — as being a piece of a larger Islamophobic effort. Still others come from watchdog groups who think that the suspects’ civil rights were violated. And while most admit they don’t know exactly what happened, they’re confident that what we’re being told by law enforcement and what is being reported in the media doesn’t add up.
Goddessina, too, observed the news of the bombings unfold without much critical thought, she said.
“I thought what everybody else thought, we all saw what happened. I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s a terrorist thing.’ I really believed in that official narrative.’’
But then something switched. She started to see posts being shared on Facebook that highlighted inconsistencies in the news, and began digging deeper on sites like InfoWars.
Goddessina had warned me ahead of calling that her phone was going to make some strange noises before she could answer, but that it was something wrong with the connection. Perhaps she’s being monitored I joked.
“I don’t want to think that at all,’’ she said.
Who’s lying to whom?
Among the more curious incidents in the entire ordeal, many agree, is the killing of Ibragim Todashev in Florida by the FBI. The Chechen immigrant, and friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was being questioned at the time about an unsolved triple murder that took place in Waltham. The FBI has said Todashev confessed to the crime before lunging violently at an agent, who then shot and killed him.
Foremost among those skeptics is Todashev’s mother-in-law.
“I am absolutely confident that the FBI lied to people about how they murder my son in law Ibragim,’’ Teyer told me in an email. “I’m sure it was set up for Tsarnaevs and they want to kill Johar. The FBI doesn’t want people to know the truth.’’
“Why did they shoot and kill Todashev if he was unarmed?’’ Goddessina asked me. “We later found out Jahar was unarmed on the boat. It seems like the FBI is lying a lot, hiding a lot of their evidence, as is the prosecution. There are so many inconsistencies one after another. It raises questions and makes you think.’’
One document being forwarded around on email convinced her something was awry. Authored in 2008 by Richard Serino, the Director of Boston’s Emergency Medical Services at the time, “Marathons – A Tale of Two Cities and the Running of a Planned Mass Casualty Event,’’ outlines how emergency personnel should deal with a scenario much like what transpired a few years later. Among the red flags, those who’ve read it suggest, is a section titled “Working with the media.’’
“Their mission is to get a story,’’ it reads. “Building a longstanding relationship with journalists and reporters ensures that they get the right story and that they serve as a resource when needed.’’
“It’s interesting he coordinated most of the response to the bombing,’’ Vanetta said. “I don’t want to say the government did this to people, there are just a lot of alarming questions. That’s as far as I would go with it.’’
Looking at the little details
A 40 year old post-grad student from the UK, who declined to give his name, sent me an onslaught of similar questions about specific details of the case and how it’s been handled, ranging from the specific dimensions of the backpacks (and how they don’t seem large enough to hold the pressure cookers said to have been used as the bombs), to the timing of the FBI’s introduction of the brothers as suspects, to the logistics of security camera footage, and the feasibility of the timing of the placement of the bombs.
“I don’t think that the official narrative stands up very well,’’ he wrote. “It’s a case of looking at small details and seeing if they make sense – usually it’s very mundane, low-key stuff. Then look at what’s left. For example the original BOLO [“Be on the lookout’’ order for law enforcement] for the [MIT officer Sean] Collier murder was that any suspect(s) would likely have a lot of blood on them. Yet there’s not a speck visible on either brother when they are pictured at the Shell station, which is supposedly after the murder of Collier and after the carjacking. And there is no mention in any of the ‘Danny’ interviews that the carjackers had any blood on them.’’
It calls to mind a similar case in the UK of the Guildford Four, he said. In both cases, those who pushed back against the official narrative were ostracized. “To question it could risk being denounced as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ or apologist, but I think that a lot of it comes from fear. Nobody wants to believe that their own government or justice system is faulty and cannot protect them, or indeed would lock up innocent people: after all, who would be next? To consider that all may be not as it seems can be in some eyes, a dangerous stance — yet human error is everywhere — as much at the top as at the bottom.’’
He, like others, discredits the vast overarching grand conspiracy idea, but thinks a lot of it may come down to human error. It’s an outlook shared by Pattie Sirois, a 53 year old freighting clerk from Arizona.
“To me, the FBI, law enforcement, all of them, they are human too,’’ she told me. “They make mistakes and incorrect assumptions, and take bribes. Not all of them. Of course there are awesome law enforcement and government officials that actually care about the people and our country. But I feel there are some connected to this case that do not have Dzhokhar’s best interests in mind.’’
Among her chief questions are the color of the backpacks used, and why law enforcement shot so many rounds at the boat Jokhar was hiding in Watertown if he was unarmed.
The latter is a concern shared by Lesley Blair, a 52 year old home health aid from the Worcester area.
“When they found their suspect in the boat in Watertown they again demonstrated a complete lack of restraint as regards firepower,’’ she said. “Seems pretty obvious they were intent on killing their suspect. Why?’’
The costs of skepticism
Simply asking why can bring with it its own set of complications. While Blair hasn’t had much trouble discussing her beliefs with friends, for Sirois it’s been difficult.
“My immediate family says I am brainwashed. My son’s boyfriend, who was raised Muslim, will not hear a word I say and says Dzhokhar is a lunatic. My own family are not even open minded enough to listen to what I say. So I must be the crazy one.’’
Goddessina, who said she now has gone back and started to rethink what she originally believed about the events of 9/11 as well, said it’s also been hard getting people to listen to her opinions on the events.
“For those who are following the mainstream news, they don’t know what we know from the alt news, they haven’t done their own research. But I was like that too. Whenever someone said something to me about what was going in the world, I just believed whatever was being handed to me through the news.’’
Despite it’s common usage as a pejorative, she considers the term conspiracy theorist to be a positive one.
“If you are a ‘conspiracy theorist’, I think you are thinking for yourself. That’s all that really means. You’re thinking of things other than what is being fed to you… There are people in NYC, where I live, that I’m educating every day. Some people are open to it, and some are not.’’
On the other hand, one characterization she and others were not pleased with was labeling them as fan girls, charmed by Dzhokhar’s looks.
“I believe some of the articles calling us fangirls and crazy are actually controlled by the government,’’ she said. “It’s character assassination through the media. If they want to portray us as crazy or fangirls it discredits the movement.’’
“It’s very off the mark,’’ Vanetta said. “We were pleased that more recent news stories have described us more as protesters because that’s much more accurate. We’re not crazy, we don’t have disorders, we’re not fangirls posting pictures and fawning over this guy, that’s not what we do. I’m sure other people have written pieces like that, but it’s not the truth. It’s really not representative of what we do. There are some people who are like, ‘Oh he’s cute,’ but that’s not the majority of what the group is.’’
The security state at work?
Russ Baker, a veteran journalist who wrote for the Village Voice for twenty years, doesn’t exactly fit the profile of what you might call an easily swayed fan. He’s written extensively on the case for his site WhoWhatWhy.
“The moment of the bombing I just got a sixth sense that there was more there,’’ he explained. “When you’ve been an investigative reporter as long as I have, and covered national security topics as long as I have, you see things in a larger context than the incidents as being isolated things.’’
Baker believes the country has become one giant homeland security complex.
“It’s a giant machine that constantly needs to be fed. The reality is, just as a police department is not happy when there’s no crime because they have nothing to do, all institutions need work. Vast machines employ all these people, get all these contracts, if there’s nothing to worry about they’re out of business. Those of us who believe that any enterprise looks for business don’t see it in anyway kooky to look cautiously at all the, shall we say, precipitating events.’’
The seeming ease with which the media bought into the authorities’ version of events is what irks skeptics like Baker.
“We’ve seen this throughout history, we saw it with the Kennedy assassination, where the media rapidly closed ranks around the official story. What troubles me is that good law enforcement investigation, or good journalism is antithetical to shutting the door that fast. We needed and we wanted to see a robust investigation with an open mind.’’
Baker outlined his misgivings in an article on April 19, among them the perfect propaganda opportunity the attack on a beloved sporting event served as.
“This country has always stood out for its uses of propaganda in terms of anthems and oaths and flag waving at sporting events. It’s unusual throughout the world. We are one of the most propagandized societies anywhere and we don’t even notice anymore. What happened there when they started using all these slogans like ‘Boston Strong’, they were either designed, or they had the effect of barring outliers and barring a vigorous discussion. We’re all heavily pressured to conform to a consensus view point. And that’s dangerous to democracy.’’
To Baker, it’s of a piece with the public’s general schizophrenic relationship with our government.
“We believe it generally to be lying, unless it is law enforcement,’’ he said. “When in fact history tells us law enforcement may be the least reliable of all. Bostonians know all about this, about corruption, incompetence, and cover-ups in the FBI. Shame on Boston in a sense, because this is a city that has experienced this first hand so many times over the years and yet proves itself to be gullible over and over again when a propaganda campaign is in full force.’’
Baker believes Collier’s murder, in particular, was used as a way to distract the public.
“They call him a hero cop. I suppose any cop that protects us is a hero, but he wasn’t in what happened that day, and you’re not allowed to say that. We were told he tried to stop the terrorists, and only later they say he was simply sitting in a police car and unknown shooters came up and shot him. That’s just shocking to me. If you were to ask people probably 5 percent know that. They probably think he encountered the Tsarnaev brothers and he tried to stop them. In what way is that honoring him to use him as a symbol for some other purpose?’’
Tamerlan’s rumored connections to the FBI, and their alleged dropping of the ball when tipped off to looking into him further muddy the waters, he and others like him suggest.
“We’ve known since 9/11 the FBI has asked foreigners like Tamerlyn to masquerade as radicals to try to draw out others. His change of behavior…he’s a guy who married a blonde wasp, has lots of American friends, really wanted to be American, and suddenly becomes a hard line Muslim trying to draw other people into plots? His trip to Russia where authorities were supposed to be monitoring him but didn’t? All of this points to the idea they had recruited him. This isn’t crazy, it happens.’’
A fair trial
You won’t hear any of this in the mainstream media, said Sasha Laine, a 28 year old data analyst from London.
“So far, the majority of the reporting has been very one-sided and angled towards a strong insinuation of guilt pre-trial. I strongly believe that a major injustice is taking place, yet these reasons are hidden from the public. Those who believe in Jahar’s innocence are many thousands from around the globe, supporting someone that we believe to be an innocent man who is wrongly accused, advocating for truth, justice, and fairness.’’
This isn’t the first time someone has been wrongly accused of terrorism, she said, referencing Richard Jewell in the 1996 Olympic bombing, Abdullah Higazy, who was awarded $250,000 by the FBI for wrongful detention as a suspect in the 9/11 attacks, and Brandon Mayfield, an American who received a $2 million settlement after being wrongly detained as a suspect in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
She and others like her are simply calling for a hearing of the facts, she said. “In Jahar’s case it is very sad to see that the public show shock and outrage to those who believe that Jahar is innocent, when in fact he is – until proven otherwise. What kind of fairness in justice can be had when someone is considered guilty before a trial, before they have had their story heard?’’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Goddessina. “We have a right to feel he’s not guilty if we feel that. We’re supporting a human being who has rights like you and me no matter what’s he been accused of. It’s not a religious issues, it’s a human one. Let him have a fair trial and let us support that. Why not? Even if the outcome is he is guilty, in the end he has a right to fair trial.’’
Ironically, the defense now seems to believe that the louder those cries are, the harder it will be for their client to get a fair trial. In response to the motion for a continuance filed last week, Laine emailed me a response on behalf of The Supporters of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It read, in part: “The venomous and completely irrational reactions of much of the media and the public to our appeals that Tsarnaev’s rights as an American citizen, which include the right to BE innocent until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial, are themselves proof that Boston in the current media climate is not a location where he will receive such a fair trial.’’