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alex beam

The Marathon bombing show trial

In this sketch, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (center) is depicted between defense attorneys Miriam Conrad (left) and Judy Clarke. Jane Flavell Collins/AP

The term “show trial” entered our political vocabulary during the 1930s, when Josef Stalin staged a dramatic series of public spectacles in Moscow. Stalin put his political rivals in the dock, exacted “confessions” from them, usually through torture, and then called the ensuing theater, for which every scene had been pre-scripted, a “trial.”

Those trials were for show. To show Russians that to defy Stalin meant death. And to show the world that a merciless, irreconcilable dictator now ruled the largest country on earth.

I ask: In what sense is the ongoing prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev not a show trial? What is our government trying to show, and to whom?

Of course no one has been tortured, but the outcome has long been foreordained. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice could have spared us this costly theater piece by offering an agreement to have Tsarnaev plead guilty for the Boston Marathon terror bombing. Instead, Justice insisted on the death penalty, precipitating this seemingly endless, two-stage trial.


Tsarnaev’s lawyers have admitted his culpability in the bombing, but, quite properly, are litigating for their client’s life.

As a result, weeks if not months will be devoted to revisiting that ugly week in April 2013 that has already been relived countless times in books, documentary footage, and media rehashes. So what is Holder’s message, and whom is it directed at?

Perhaps the Moakley courthouse production is intended as a civics lesson — to show us that even a naturalized refugee from Dagestan who commits an act of terrorism in his adopted country can get a fair trial? That we are all equal before the bar of justice? That is pretty rich, coming from Holder, who famously arranged the midnight pardon of billionaire tax fugitive Marc Rich in the waning hours of the Clinton administration.

Or is this a public relations campaign for an international audience, to demonstrate how effectively we weed out and imprison would-be terrorists? Of course, that is precisely what the Justice Department and its sister agencies failed to do. They repeatedly let the Tsarnaev brothers slip under their surveillance radar and ginned up excuses for their failures afterwards.


Maybe the millions spent on this pointless prosecution might be better spent on double-checking the spelling of those tricky Russian names on the border protection watch list — one of their pretexts for losing track of the Tsarnaevs. That came after two warnings from Russian intelligence about the brothers’ terrorist links.

Another possibility is that Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama wants to show the world, hey — we’re not just about Guantanamo, OK? We frittered away 12 years doing nothing about those detainees, but at least the young Tsarnaev boy is getting a real trial.

Or is this rebarbative, heart-wrenching circus yet another exercise in “closure,” that meaningless pop psychology term foisted on the public every time something untoward happens? The Tsarnaev brothers killed four people, and injured more than 250, many of them grievously. But there are other, legitimate ways to mourn those losses; this pointless show trial doesn’t need to be one of them.

The outcome could be worse yet. Suppose the images of the baby-faced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, beamed around the world every day, inspire other young men and women to take up arms against the United States? Look what one 21-year-old boy did: He paralyzed a great city with some gunpowder and a pressure cooker. Now he stands alone in a courtroom, while the serried powers of the Department of Justice and the FBI labor overtime just to keep him in jail.

Who looks strong and who looks weak in this picture? Who is showing what to whom?


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at