A few hours after three men bearing heavy guns and no conscience burst into a newspaper office in Paris, US District Judge George O’Toole was standing 3,435 miles away, in front of 200 prospective jurors at the federal courthouse overlooking Boston Harbor, talking about some profound concepts.
O’Toole’s civics lesson, the sixth he has presented this week to the 1,200 potential jurors who will be culled down to the 12 members of the jury and 6 alternates who will hear the case against accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, dwelled heavily on the importance of fairness and impartiality, that jurors have to park any potential bias at the courthouse door.
There is an ongoing debate about whether Tsarnaev, 21 and facing the death penalty, can get a fair trial in the city where he and his big brother Tamerlan are accused of detonating bombs that killed three, maimed dozens and injured hundreds. O’Toole believes that the voir dire process, in which potential jurors will be questioned about potential bias, is enough to empanel a jury that can fairly and impartially hear the evidence.
Still, the judge has said that if the voir dire process doesn’t work, he’d be open to a change of venue, moving it to some other jurisdiction. The defense prefers Washington, D.C.
In his presentations to the six different batches of prospective jurors, Judge O’Toole has stressed that they must be, as he put it, “free from outside influence.” He instructed them to refrain from reading, listening to or watching anything about the Tsarnaev case.
On Wednesday, I was half-expecting him to add, “And, whatever you do, please don’t read or listen or watch anything about what happened in Paris today.”
Alas, he didn’t, and maybe he shouldn’t have. But what happened in Paris, the massacre of journalists and police officers over what extremists perceived as an unforgivable insult to Islam, is inextricably linked in many minds with what happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day in 2013.
The government’s case against Tsarnaev is precisely about saying that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother were motivated by a sense of grievance, the same sense of grievance that led the masked gunmen to storm into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that has made fun of everybody and everything, including the Prophet Muhammed.
By now, many of us have seen the chilling video in which a gunman executes a wounded French police officer lying on the sidewalk, his arms raised in helpless surrender.
The Tsarnaev brothers stand accused of doing essentially the same, sneaking up and shooting a helpless MIT police officer named Sean Collier as he sat in his idling cruiser on the Cambridge campus as the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs gathered pace. The killers wanted Collier’s gun but were too stupid to figure out how to unbuckle his holster.
The government will argue that the Tsarnaevs placed bombs on Boylston Street, murdered Sean Collier, and tried to murder the police who cornered them on a Watertown street four days after the bombings because they were angry about US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan - that if the US military was going to kill Muslims, they were going to kill Americans. It was about revenge, to avenge an injustice against “their” people.
This all raises questions about the ongoing questions about whether Bostonians can be fair and impartial when weighing evidence against and potentially meting out punishment to a self-styled jihadi who grew up in Cambridge.
The government contends the Tsarnaevs were lone wolves, inspired by the worldwide phenomenon of jihad, but acting on their own. Like the guy who took over the coffee shop in Sydney last month. Like the guy who stormed Canada’s parliament in Ottawa in October.
So you can move the trial out of Boston and you’re still faced with the prospect of potential jurors turning on the TV tonight or last month or the month before or how many more times in the months to follow and watching murderous mayhem in different parts of the world, with different actors and different outcomes, but all connected by an ideology that cites a religion even as it perverts that religion.
This is not about Muslims. This is about Muslim extremists. But that’s exactly what the federal government is accusing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of being, an extremist who happens to be Muslim.
By most accounts, Tsarnaev’s defense is determined to show that he was young and impressionable, dragged into a jihadist mission by an older brother who was a real extremist. Tsarnaev’s lawyers still want the trial moved, insisting that all 5 million people in eastern Massachusetts were victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Following that logic, hundreds of millions of people around the world are the victims of the same murderous ideology that will be on trial alongside Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The issue of fairness goes way beyond Boston, playing on our deepest fears and insecurities, broadcast into our homes, read at our kitchen tables, over coffee in the morning, sometimes the last thing we see when we turn out the light and turn off the TV.
Nous sommes tous Charlie. That is a major, major problem for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And there is no change of venue for that.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org