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The Role Of Trials In The Process Of Catharsis


Months - or more likely a couple of years from now - the suspected Boston Marathon bomber could face a jury of his peers. By that time, Boylston Street will have been repaired, the marathon will have been run again, but public outrage will remain. We want to hear from callers in Boston now. With the passage of time, what role would the trial play among the public rituals of recovery, like memorial services and remembrances? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Leon Neyfakh joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's the Ideas reporter for The Boston Globe, for which he recently wrote a piece called "What We Want from the Marathon Bombing Trial." Good of you to be with us today.

LEON NEYFAKH: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you argue this is not an ordinary crime, and expectations for this prosecution are elevated.

NEYFAKH: That's right. I think because it was not a crime that was meant to hurt just the people who happened to be near the bombs, because it was meant to scare everybody and hurt people, you know, all over Boston and beyond makes us feel like the prosecution should also be somehow extraordinary. We all feel attacked, in a way, because this was so random that we kind of identify with the victims even more than we do in other kinds of crimes.

CONAN: For example - and you made the comparison - it is an attack on the country in a way that the attack in the Aurora movie theater, which killed a lot more people, was not.

NEYFAKH: That's right. And I think it was meant to be an attack on society as a whole. It was meant to make all of us feel like it could have been us. And, you know, for all we know, the only thing stopping these guys from having hurt more people was that they didn't know how to.

CONAN: And as you think about the prosecution, well, what are people there - people in Boston thinking about it?

NEYFAKH: Well - so I think - like I said, the extraordinary nature of the crime and the fact that it was this attack on the whole public makes you feel like the process of prosecuting the surviving suspect should somehow match that in gravity. On a basic level, I think a lot of people want him to be punished as severely as possible. You know, our mayor, Mayor Menino, was a long-opposed capital punishment, even said after the bombing that in this case, you know, the death penalty felt to him like the right move. There was a poll conducted by ABC, I believe, that showed that, you know, across America, 70 percent of the people want to see Tsarnaev put to death.

But more generally, I think we want two things. One is we want to know what happened, that this normal-seeming kid from Cambridge turned into a mass-murderer - that is, we want information. And two, I think we want the process to sort of bring some measure of relief or closure, and we want to think that our justice system can give us that.

CONAN: Our justice system, though, you argue, is not designed to do that.

NEYFAKH: That's right. It's not designed to be cathartic or to bring catharsis to the public. I think it's designed for a very, you know, in a way, simple thing, which is to hear the evidence, allow the defendant to speak in his or her defense, and then render a verdict. You know, I think we're kind of conditioned to expect justice to be quick and dramatic. You know, that's what it's like on TV. But in reality, you know, it's slow. It's procedurally very elaborate. It's restrained. Like you said, it's going to be years, probably, before we see this thing truly play out.

CONAN: And there's every possibility we may never see a trial play out. The - could be plea of guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.

NEYFAKH: That's right. And, I mean, right now, the death penalty is still on the table. We don't know if he's going to be facing life in prison or the death penalty. It's possible, like you say, that if they decide to go with the death penalty, the defendant can plead guilty, and perhaps there won't be a trial at all.

CONAN: So the expectations of - we expect some kind of explanation, I guess, that answer why.

NEYFAKH: Right. We want to hear from him, in a way, like we want to understand. But, beyond that, I think we just - we want to hold him responsible, right? We want him to be questioned. We want him to be put on the spot. We want to take control of the storyline, in a way. And that's what a trial allows a society to do, I think.

CONAN: And face his victims.

NEYFAKH: That's right. In the Timothy McVeigh trial, years ago after the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the real important things that happened was that during the sentencing process, the victims were allowed to come in and testify to what this horrible event had done to their lives. And I think that was very important for those victims, because it was sort of a way for them to tell their story in a way that mattered, in a way that contributed to the nature of the punishment that was brought down on him.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to this procedure - and it is going to be slow and incremental and it is going to be painstaking because people don't want to make mistakes that can mess everything up. But the assumption is going to be that this person we still call the alleged bomber - against whom there seems to be just a mass of evidence - is going to face a very difficult time.

NEYFAKH: That's right. And we're, you know, as you say, we're calling him the alleged suspect. And I think that doesn't sit well with a lot of people, because we, you know, we kind of know he did it. He's admitted that he did it, right?

CONAN: Well, reportedly, he's admitted that he did it. We were - no tape recordings have come out of that conversation.

NEYFAKH: That's true. But the point is that if we honor our process, our legal process, you know, as it's supposed to be carried out, chances are it's not going to be particularly satisfying for reasons just like that.

CONAN: And you didn't write about this, but I wanted to ask you whether the nature, the extraordinary nature of the crime, what part that's playing in the controversy over where to bury Mr. Tsarnaev's brother.

I think it's a huge part of it. I think, you know, in case people haven't been following it for the last few days, there's been intense debate over what should happen with the older brother's body. For the time being, he's in a funeral home in Worcester and - where he was brought on Friday. And there have been protesters there ever since, you know, some calling for his body to be fed to sharks. You know, others saying that they would leave the state if the body remains here, because they don't want to live in his midst.

NEYFAKH: And on the other hand, you have people who have shown up - I understand religious people, primarily - to say that, look, we should have tolerance. You know, we should honor our rituals, and burying the dead is an act of mercy. And that's what we should do in this case.

CONAN: And you, again, draw - you have to draw the comparison. There were nothing like this in the case of Timothy McVeigh. He was put to death for the horrible crimes he committed in Oklahoma City. But he was buried without incident.

NEYFAKH: As far as I know, there's very few examples of this kind of outcry regarding the fate of a body of a criminal. I mean, there's a story in the Globe today, you know, that sort of goes through a list of terrible criminals who were buried without, you know, much fanfare or controversy at all. I think it goes to show you how raw people still feel about what happened, you know, that this debate is taking place.

CONAN: Other people feel that there's an element of Islamophobia or racism here.

NEYFAKH: Maybe. But I think the real reason, and I'm just speculating, is that everyone feels like they were hurt by this person, that they were attacked by this person. And for that reason, they feel stake in sort of what happens both to his body and to the surviving suspect.

CONAN: We want to hear from callers in Boston today. What role do you think the trial of the alleged Boston marathon bomber will play in the recovery rituals? There will be many, of course. 800-989-6255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go to Boston, and Bothidae(ph) is on the line with us.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

BOTHIDAE: So I don't know. I guess I just hear your commentator saying the word we a lot, and it's sort of frustrating for me because I was really sort of deeply affected by what happened at the marathon, like, I go to school only a mile away and I lived in Dorchester when they were talking about the whole JFK thing. Like, it's really freaking me out that, only also being only a mile away from my house.

And it's, like, I feel like the thing that makes us Boston, like, the good people different than the brothers, the bad people, is that we're supposed to be sort of above this level of bloodlust and sort of wanting to, you know, make people feel like they need to be - they need to pay for their actions by being the most harsh as we can. And I feel like we sort of should be looking for catharsis and closure in each other, in our families and internally or in God, if that's your thing, not in trying to punish these people and find the death penalty. Like, that just feels so excessive to me.

And I think that trying to focus in on the negative actions of this bad person and - I mean, we're sort of mirroring their actions in a lot of ways by wanting to do the worst thing we possibly can in refusing to bury their bodies and changing the principles that the state was founded on. You know, like, we shouldn't reverse the death penalty because these two, young kids made a terrible mistake and are bad people. Send them to jail, but let's not, you know, completely reverse our principles because of - for some need for revenge. That just seems really excessive.

CONAN: So prison would be an appropriate verdict of justice, in your view.

BOTHIDAE: Maybe. I mean, not in my point of view, no.

CONAN: What would then - what should be done, then?

BOTHIDAE: I mean, we can put them on trial and they can be - you know, there should be a fair trial, or I don't know. I guess - I feel like that, in some ways, the media coverage of this is just so excessive. We should really be trying to move on as a city and not really focus in on these people as if they were, like, the absolute worst human beings to ever walk on the planet, and our goal needs to be to punish them and sort of, like, make an example out of them. Like, I just feel like we're supposed to be better than that as a community, or I feel like - I don't know.

I just feel like we should really be trying to move on and find positive ways to move forward from this, and focusing in on punishing these people as harshly as humanly possible is just a really negative way of trying to find that closure, that, you know, I'm sure some people are looking for.

CONAN: Bothidae, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BOTHIDAE: No problem. Thank you.

CONAN: And as we go back to our Boston Globe Ideas reporter, Leon Neyfakh, who's with us from our bureau in New York, two things you take away from that call, and I guess one of the most important one is that there's going to be a range of opinion.

NEYFAKH: Definitely. And I think one of the things the caller said was that - what we should be doing here is carrying out a trial. And that's like something I heard from a couple of the criminal justice scholars I spoke to, which is, you know, that by carrying out our process the way we do in every single case, you know, down from the most horrible crimes we can imagine down to, like, pedestrian stuff that doesn't really affect anyone but the individuals involved, by honoring that process, that's kind of revenge. And it's the worst thing that can do to these guys in a way is not elevate them to the status of, you know, existential threat and just treat them like a couple of mopes(ph).

CONAN: We're talking with Leon Neyfakh of The Boston Globe. His piece, "What We Want from the Marathon Bombing Trial," was published on April 26th. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

An email from Steve in Kansas City: I have to disagree with your guest. The trial does not serve as catharsis. Our system is set up to ensure people believe in justice to ensure they don't become vigilantes. For that to happen, two things must occur: First, an innocent person must occasionally be found guilty, then overturned. Second, some who are guilty must be found not guilty. Otherwise, there is no faith in the system. Leon Neyfakh?

NEYFAKH: Well, so I think that it's certainly possible that some people will be able to sort of take solace in the fact that we have a fair justice system that can respond to a crime like this in a measured, fair way. I guess when I say that it's not a system built for catharsis is it's not a system that promises to deliver a lot emotional healing, like it's one thing to kind of, on an intellectual level, know that, you know, we're doing the right thing here by giving this person a fair trial, by being humane towards him.

But I think in the immediate aftermath of an incident like this, people are looking for something emotional. And that's just not what our justice system can deliver.

CONAN: Do you think that this is going to fade, this raw feeling that's visible in terms of these demonstrations in front of the funeral home in Worcester? Do you think those feelings are going to fade with time?

NEYFAKH: I think they will. I can't really predict, you know, how exactly public opinion is going to shift. But I think, yeah. I think in the immediate aftermath of a thing like this, you're going to get feelings that are a lot more kind of extreme or raw than you will later on.

CONAN: As it progresses from being news to being history.

NEYFAKH: That's right.

CONAN: Yeah. And the memorials are going to be an important part, and they already have been. President Obama's speech there in Boston, even before the arrest was made, a very powerful part of that. And, of course, a year from now, there's going to be a lot of focus on the Boston Marathon.

NEYFAKH: That's right. I think the marathon next year is going to be a moment of, possibly, closure, definitely some celebration of sort of what Boston is all about and what the marathon is meant to be when such - on any given - on any normal year. And, in a way, I think that might be our best bet for getting that sort of emotional relief that we're looking for.

CONAN: And as we look at this, what is it, do you think, we can reasonably expect from a trial? That it be fair? That it come to a conclusion? This, again, assuming there's not a plea bargain.

NEYFAKH: Well, I think what we can hope for is that we understand what happened better. I think a lot of people were really relieved when Tsarnaev was taken alive, because it promises the possibility that he'll answer questions, whereas, obviously, the older brother was killed in the shootout. We want to understand this better, even if we don't really expect to ever, you know, empathize with this - with these guys or truly, you know, wrap our minds around what kind of person would want to do such a thing, we still want to understand what happened.

And I think the younger brother is a mystery to a lot of people and an object of fascination because he, from all accounts, was such a normal person and such a, you know, seemingly well-liked person in his school. Possibly, the trial can give us some insight into what exactly happened that turned him into a person who wanted to kill innocent people.

CONAN: This email in form Corey(ph): I currently live in Boston, in Dorchester. I think the best form of closure will be - other than seeing the Boston Marathon again next year - is to forget the bombing suspect as he sits in jail for the rest of his life, and Boston only gets stronger. And there will be an element of that, too, if he is sentenced to a life in prison without the possibility of parole. And that seems to be, I guess, the only foreseeable alternative other than the death penalty. But nevertheless, it'll never quite go away. It's going to be a permanent part of Boston.

NEYFAKH: Right. And I think what the person that wrote that email says is true, in a way, because for now, we've been focusing on these two perpetrators - alleged perpetrators, and we're giving them a lot of attention. We're thinking about them a lot. You know, just the other day, there was a, you know, photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of The New York Times in a long piece about what he was like. And I think, in a way, that feels wrong to us because, you know, we're sort of giving them what they wanted, which is the sort of status of - not necessarily martyrs, but at least like people who matter, you know, in a way that we might not want to really indulge.

CONAN: Leon Neyfakh, thanks very much for your time.

NEYFAKH: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Leon Neyfakh is the Ideas reporter for The Boston Globe. His piece, "What We Want from the Marathon Bombing Trial," you can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, Ted Koppel joins us for a look at the crisis in Syria as it continues to escalate. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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