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The Boston Globe

Opinion

derrick z. jackson

The decency to bury a body

Protesters gathered outside the Worcester funeral home on Monday where the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev was held.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Protesters gathered outside the Worcester funeral home on Monday where the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev was held.

The body of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev has finally been buried, in a Muslim cemetery in Virginia. But coming nearly three weeks after his death, the resolution does not answer the original question. If we’re so “Boston Strong,” how could one corpse scare common sense to death?

Not one major political figure in Massachusetts had the guts to say the obvious as Tsarnaev lay in suspended non-animation at a funeral home in Worcester. He could hurt no one any more. All he was since April 19 was rotting flesh, crumbling into dust. As the late comedian Richard Pryor noted in a memorable 1975 routine, the “ultimate test” is whether you can survive death.

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“So far,” Pryor said, “don’t nobody we know has passed the ultimate test.”

Nor did Tsarnaev. But everyone else failed the test of recognizing this fact, behaving like Tsarnaev was a zombie headed back to Boylston Street with another backpack of explosives and nails. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy said there would be no burial in their towns. Tsarnaev was a Cambridge resident; Healy said the “turmoil” of burying him there would prevent a “return to peaceful life.”

No spine was spotted in higher offices. Governor Deval Patrick verbally put up his index fingers in a cross to scare away curses, saying, “This isn’t a state or federal issue.” US Representative Bill Keating repeated that line and US Representative Ed Markey, running to replace John Kerry in the Senate, hid behind “the people,” saying they “have a right to say that they do not want that terrorist to be buried on the soil of Massachusetts.”

Rather than lead, our most powerful politicians catered to the hysteria of those who said they would leave Massachusetts if Tsarnaev was buried here, or that they would dig up the body if it was buried anywhere in the United States. This contrasts with the relatively quiet burials of the worst criminals in American history, including accused Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo and serial child molester John Geoghan, who are buried in Peabody and Brookline, respectively.

By catering to the worst instincts of some people — a desire for revenge that even included scattered physical and verbal attacks on area Muslims — our so-called leaders took some of the luster off the most inspiring acts in Boston’s living memory: the first responders rushing to the bombing scene; amputee soldiers visiting hospitals to cheer up the maimed; people staging fundraisers to provide bombing victims with generous financial support. Nothing said in this column is meant to take away from those displays of fearless action and thoughtful caring.

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But a hysteria that was loud enough to paralyze politicians is a sobering reminder of how an otherwise understandable post-traumatic reaction can take a sour, self-absorbed turn. At that point, we have to challenge our feelings. As tragic as the Marathon bombings were, can we really argue that the sense of trauma they engendered was greater than those generated by the Newtown and Columbine shootings, or the killing of a president of the United States? Lee Harvey Oswald is buried in Fort Worth, Texas, less than an hour from where he shot John F. Kennedy.

A reason for the political cowardice over the body was that in the otherwise cleansing atmosphere of heroism, caring, and global outpouring, we fell into a subtle trap. We came to view the Marathon bombing as a unique event, and Tsarnaev as uniquely evil, which justified a sense of anger so vast that it was self-poisoning. Being Muslim probably made Tsarnaev seem just that much more “evil” in post-9/11 America.

Instead of suggesting a quick, secret burial, political leaders stoked the anger by figuratively kicking the body around the state. The only person making sense was the unlucky Worcester funeral home owner who was stuck with the body. Peter Stefan said, “If they had asked me to bury Adolf Hitler, I would have buried him.” Because even a dead Hitler can’t hurt anyone anymore.

The battle over Tsarnaev’s body brought to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 differentiation between disliking and hating an enemy. “I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home,” King said. But he added, “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate . . . hate is too great a burden to bear.” We just witnessed how great that burden was. No politician in Massachusetts knew what to do with it.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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