Making Sense of Boston

Cameras from major media outlets converge outside the Tsarnaev trial.

We asked each member of our Boston Marathon Bombing reporting team to share their personal experience or perspective on one aspect of the bombing or the trial. Stay tuned for more personal perspectives like this as the trial concludes.

I’m a logical person. I do most things in life because they make sense. I have also been in a few extreme situations. For example, I was across the street from the Pentagon on 9/11, in the Hart Senate Building on the day anthrax was discovered there, in the White House during a bomb threat, and in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina passed through.

In all of those cases, I observed people acting rationally. They generally did what you would expect a reasonable person to do. We all looked out for our own safety and listened to people who sounded as though they knew what they were doing. Nobody I saw did anything that I would classify as dumb or reckless. In short, everybody’s behavior made sense and was appropriate to the situation.

Why am I telling you this? Because to me the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers did not make sense.

Compared to just about everybody else on the WhoWhatWhy team, I’m a novice when it comes to the Boston bombing and only helped with a bit of the editing during the trial. I’m the wrong person to discuss the fine nuances of the case. I did, however, find myself shaking my head and thinking, “that doesn’t make sense” over and over again whenever I learned something new about the aftermath of the bombing.

Before pointing out a few examples, let me stress that, obviously, planting a bomb anywhere and targeting (especially) civilians to me is itself highly irrational. It is therefore possible that we are simply dealing with two really disturbed young men and it all happened exactly the way the prosecution in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial has said. Nevertheless, that conclusion would appear to be neither logical nor plausible. Let me explain what I mean.

***

I want to focus here not on theories or insinuations but rather on things anybody can watch, in three videos presented at the trial.

Video 1

What puzzled me the most is that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took a couple of minutes to pick out the right kind of snacks at a gas station while his brother was waiting outside in a stolen car with a kidnapped individual in plain sight. Who in their right mind would do this while on the run? I’d grab the first snacks I saw and be in and out within 30 seconds at most. If that had happened, Dun “Danny” Meng would not have had time to escape—or describe how Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the man holding a gun on him, gratuitously confessed to both the bombing and the shooting of Officer Sean Collier.

Let’s keep in mind that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the same guy who the prosecution said had the poise and tradecraft to know to smash his cell phones while on the run. He had the presence of mind to do that, but not to pick the first bag of potato chips he could find?

And then there is the matter of the two cars.

I’m guessing that the reason for the carjacking—if we can believe anything we’ve been told about that (and our investigations raise many questions about it) was that, once they were identified as suspects, the brothers did not want to use their own vehicle. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is bothering to retrieve Dzhokhar’s Honda after the carjacking victim escapes from his Mercedes. After that point, they were in a two-car convoy with both vehicles being actively looked for. Who would be so illogical? If they needed a different vehicle, they could have carjacked another one.

Video 2

And why even wait a couple of days before making a move, especially if that move is the brothers’ alleged plan to plant bombs in New York City? If, as the prosecution says, the Tsarnaevs were a couple of jihadists, then they should not have feared death. So why not make that move in the chaos immediately following the bombing? That was the perfect time to get away. Instead, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shows up in a store, in front of a camera, buys some milk and then returns it a minute or so later. Who would do that and why?

Video 3

The last video is the one from MIT that shows the murder of Officer Sean Collier. From quite a distance away, it shows two figures, who would later be named as the Tsarnaev brothers. But if it was indeed them, then why? Why would they even be there? The prosecution said it was to get another gun. Here is the thing about America: If you want a gun, you don’t need to attack a police officer 30 feet away from a busy street, especially if you are well-prepared jihadists. They could have gotten a gun just about anywhere else, ahead of time. It just doesn’t make sense that at a moment when their faces are plastered on TV screens in every household, that they’d decide to go to a public place instead of just leaving the city. Plus, they already had a gun. Even if they didn’t, who would expect to easily obtain a gun on a darkened university campus? Who would know that an officer was sitting in his patrol car between a couple of buildings on the campus?

What also doesn’t make sense is for the prosecution to omit a chunk of time from that video, which can clearly be observed in the video linked above (as evidenced by the timestamp and the cars passing on the upper left corner of the video). There is really no need to edit out any part of the video if everything happened exactly as the prosecution has described it. It couldn’t have been out of a desire to somehow shield the jury or the family of Sean Collier from violence. After all, the courtroom itself was the scene of gory images. And the video footage was grainy and images remote—taken by a camera a couple hundred feet away from the scene of the crime.

I obviously don’t have the answers to any of these questions. But neither did the defense or the media. And neither does the public.

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