Some Skepticism About The Boston Bombings Press

by Richard Kostelanetz (August 2013)

So desperate was the journalistic need for a credible explanation that I heard soon after the explosion on 15 April, even on sources like NPR with reputations to protect, some earnest voice blame the familiar bugaboo of gun-crazy right-wingers, even though no guns were visibly involved. Other publicists no doubt found an opportunity to raise one or another favorite villain whenever some medium gave them a national forum. That’s how the media work nowadays, leaving me with the suspicion that some off-stage editors or producers are ventriloquists for the “reporters” we hear on air or read in newsprint.

Another problem is that in the age of Twitter and other unedited communications channels of private and narrow casting, the broadcast media are impelled to beat them, which is, of course, impossible by any channel that filters information though a hierarchy. When a colleague now in his mid-thirties first heard the news of the Boston bombing over the radio, he told everyone within earshot to open Twitter, on the assumption that it would have newer news unavailable even to a radio reporter, as indeed it did. Consider this current problem with the communications media as you read ahead.

Since Chechens have long been known as unruly people, much like Sicilians, Corsicans, or the Hmong, the Soviets routinely blame such urban bombings in their own turfs on Chechens. And apparently they are usually right. My first thought when I heard about these Tsarnaev brothers as Chechen-Americans was that America intelligence and then the American news media had succumbed to glib post-Soviet explanations—or, worse, that some KGB veterans, unemployed back home, had insinuated themselves into our security agencies. However, just because an explanation was credible before or credible elsewhere does not mean it’s credible in the USA in 2013. Just because an explanation exploits some currently accepted stereotypes doesn’t mean it’s true. Not at all.

More and more skeptical about news media rushing to judgment, especially when government agencies’ flacks are similarly driven, I’m not entirely sure that these Tsarnaev brothers planted those deadly bombs. Why can’t the law enforcement agencies release the images purportedly showing the Tsarnaev brothers (and no one else) dropping their bomb-laden backpacks? Especially since some people on the scene have reported memories of other people leaving bulky backpacks near the race’s finish line.

Consider, nonetheless, if the T. brothers were indeed the perpetrators, why did the younger one of them return to his college campus the following day? And then use the college gym, sleep in his dorm, and tweet messages? If the brother had older handlers, as young perpetrators of such provocations usually do, why weren’t the brothers with their American passports taken out of the USA that night? That’s what any external sabotage agency would have done, if not through Logan Airport then at least by car or even bus over the Canadian border than isn’t so far from Boston.

Just because police report that they have uncovered emails saying that these brothers wanted weapons doesn’t mean that they actually purchased or used them. (May I venture that in America many other young men of various persuasions send similar messages.) And, given how much other evidence is withheld, am I alone in questioning why these emails can’t be made public? Just because Chechens are notorious terrorists doesn’t mean that these brothers not of Chechen birth but Chechen ancestry did this. Just because the purported perpetrators fit a somewhat popular negative stereotypes doesn’t mean they actually planted bombs.

More important, even if some government officials told the NY Times or CNN that something happened doesn’t mean it surely did. Not at all. Just because Rolling Stone put on its cover the face of the surviving brother with the headline “The Bomber” doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily be convicted. More than once I sensed that, when the Tsarnaev conviction machine got going, traditional journalistic rules requiring the confirmation of any purported information with two or more sources were set aside for the sake of getting out the latest flaming detail. The brothers were, after all, the kind of perpetrators that some people wanted and many others thought stereotypically credible.

Consider, additionally, that it’s not clear why they, not someone else, should have killed the MIT security officer, though it was certainly convenient for the Boston police to charge them with that crime. It seems clear now that they didn’t rob a 7-11 store, contrary to initial news reports. For the press the strongest source of the story of the MIT killing is the owner of the Mercedes SUV reportedly hijacked—again not heard by us first hand but as reported by someone else or, worse, by someone else telling someone else. Why guys so allegedly murderous as the Tsarnaev brothers let this Chinese immigrant escape seems inexplicable. (One story said that they saved him as “non-white.” That would make the T. Brothers more politically correct than is otherwise known.) Remember that this car owner is also the source of the highly dubious story second- (or third-) hand in the media, nonetheless amplified in my hometown, that the T. Brothers planned to take their remaining bombs to New York.

Why can’t the news gumshoes, so sure of themselves, account for how these T. Brothers, both described as financially precarious, got money evidently beyond their current means? Where did they get their inflammatory materials? Who instructed them? (Not even their buddies remember them as cunning enough to do this by themselves.) How did they get pressure cookers? If over the Internet, they must have used a credit card or another channel whose transactions can be easily traced. Whoever perpetrated the fantasy that boxers or martial arts enthusiasts are necessarily potential bombers? Why hasn’t any foreign terrorist group claimed credit for the bombing? Haven’t Chechens gladly done so in the past? Unless the T Brothers’ handlers can be identified, purchases documented, and verifiable autopsies made public, shouldn’t skeptics consider that perhaps some others guys might have done it?

The brothers didn’t have the firearms that the press initially attributed to them. If the older was tackled to be taken alive, as claimed, how did he die? One story had the younger brother running over him while driving the hijacked SUV through police lines. Will the results of an autopsy of the older and medical reports for the younger be made public? To be independently verified?

Too many Tsarnaev stories came not directly from the surviving brother, an ultimate source now reportedly mute, but from intermediaries speaking to news hawks who in turn tell the public. Just as skeptics once learned to “read between the lines,” consider that CBS reported, while the Huffington Post repeated, that the surviving brother left a note in the boat where he was arrested. Even though the cited source is conveniently unnamed government “officials,” why can’t we see a copy of this confession? Where is a photo of the “jihadist screed” purportedly written on the interior of the boat where he hid? Where? Where?

Need I remind everyone that some of these communications middlemen, beginning with those at government agencies, have interests that aren’t commonly identified? Remember as well that most of press relations flacks were once journalists who know from education and experience what media editors want to feature. (That’s why they were hired.) Nonetheless, only so much can we accept of what she said what he said. Whenever I read “allegedly” a red flag falls from my eyelids.

Where did all those lawmen on the Boston scene come from so quickly? There were far more armed men and equipment than necessary to catch two men and then one man. One could credibly speculate that the crime became an occasion to display possible state forces. Why hasn’t the American the press, so distracted by another story, accounted for why and how they were all so speedily mobilized? In my judgment, this was a major news story missed.

Why didn’t the American press, purportedly more skeptical than most, explain why, given such overwhelming manpower, these gumshoes had spent a few days not finding someone hiding within the area where they were looking? (The owner of the boat discovered Jahar hiding in the boat in his backyard and called the police.) How suspiciously convenient for certain agencies, it now seems, that the surviving brother suffered a neck wound that makes him unable to talk. Thus, everything purportedly said by him goes through pesky middlemen. Simply, someone judged guilty in the American press isn’t necessarily guilty to an American jury. Not at all. Remember that just because George Zimmerman was convicted in the mainstream American press of killing Treyvon Martin didn’t mean that an American jury followed its popular lead. Not at all.

From the “evidence” publicly presented so far—certainly without an image of him and only him placing the knapsack--I’m not so sure that a jury would judge the younger Tsarnaev “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Given this inconvenience, where can I wager that he won’t emerge from a government hospital? Or, with higher odds, that he’ll be judged another “enemy combatant” and shipped to Guantanamo?

While the press has reported that the younger brother was an all-American boy whose most familiar photograph portrayed an innocent kid, why can’t reporters find witnesses for the conversion to radical Islam that purportedly occurred? Among the quoted informants was his high school wrestling coach Peter Payack, long my colleague in avant-garde American poetry, who wrote me, “The Jahar that I knew would not be capable of any of this.” The absence of testimony for this crucial development in Jahar’s life prompts me to wonder if the change actually happened.

What about Jahar’s purported throat wound? When a police photographer late in July gave a Boston magazine his photograph of the younger brother being arrested, he said to counter the Rolling Stone image of a teenage heartthrob, he was reprimanded; but the principal revelation evident in his photograph is no visible sign of any throat wound, let alone one that is incapacitating. May the American press be smarter about pictures than it was about the George Zimmerman case, repeatedly showing a photograph of a cheery youngster who bore scant resemblance to the hooded teenager confronting Zimmerman.

A further set of incongruities arose in the wake of Jahar’s appearance before a Boston judge in mid-July, three months after his arrest. Though these proceedings could be neither photographed or recorded, one reporter noted that, in pleading “not guilty,” Jahar not only spoke, disproving the claim he’d be forever mute, but displayed “a thick accent,” which he was not known to have. Courtroom drawings also show a man with a clean neck but a swollen face, to mention two details raising more questions than answers. A former high-school wrestling teammate claimed on news camera that the prisoner before the dock was not the Jahar they knew. Consider those bum apples, if you wish.

Were not innocent Americans killed, did not the knapsack include dangerous pellets, I could believe the hypothesis of the skeptical radio commentator Alex Jones, among others, that this was “a false flag operation,” if not conducted then at least permitted, by certain American authorities with ulterior motives. (That would account for the prompt display of so many domestic troops, whose rapid response would suggest that some must have been notified in advance to pack their weapons.) Maybe it was a provocation botched or one that couldn’t be appropriately controlled. The greatest fear, of course, is that all this smug news haze protects some other real perpetrators, perhaps Chechens or anti-Chechens, who have gotten cleanly away.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that the T brothers might be patsies for advocates of another ulterior agenda. That hypothesis would certainly account for why they didn’t try to leave the US even after pictures of them appeared on television. Their mother, lately back in Russia, claimed in English recorded on camera by American media, first, that our FBI had tracked and even interviewed her eldest son; and, second, that the FBI controlled him as well. (Who else in this charade speaks in his or her own voice, without benefiting from a boss or a handler?) Remember as well that the FBI has already developed a reputation, well justified, for infiltrating American Muslim radicals with provocateurs whom the FBI supplies with mischief-making materials.

May I add that I find especially suspicious the more recent story of the killing of the elder T’s buddy, Ibragim Todashev, while being questioned in Orlando about the Boston bombings. The fishiest detail to me is that the FBI agents interviewing him came not from Orlando but Boston. Anyone attacking armed American lawmen with a knife or a “metal broom handle” wanted to die, perhaps exemplifying jihadist ethics, unless, of course, the story of whatever weapon is fake.

Even in mid-July, Wikipedia scribes reported some suspicious details that could supposedly be confirmed: “When the Russian embassy in Washington learned of Todashev's shooting, it asked the U.S. government for the relevant documentation, including the autopsy report as well as information about the firearms used in the incident. The autopsy report has remained sealed, and an FBI spokesman said that no documents relating to the case would be provided to Russia until the FBI completes its investigation. The FBI's refusal to provide details on the shooting contrasts sharply with previous shootings involving its agents.” Yes. Stay attuned?

Consider as well this summary, also on Wikipedia, of reportage many Americans witnessed:

On May 16, 2013 during CBS This Morning, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller said he had been told that Dzhokhar wrote a note in the boat in which he was hiding and claimed responsibility for the April 15 attack during the marathon. The note was scribbled with a pen on one of the inside walls of the cabin and said the bombings were payback for the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and referred to the Boston victims as collateral damage, the same way Muslims have been in the American-led wars. He continued, "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims." He also said he did not mourn his brother's death because now Tamerlan was a martyr in paradise and that he (Dzhokhar) expected to join him in paradise. Miller's sources said the wall the note was written on had multiple bullet holes in it from the shots that were fired into the boat by police. According to Miller during the interview he gave on the morning show, he said that the note will be a significant piece of evidence in any Dzhokar trial and that it is ‘certainly admissible,’ and paints a clear picture of the brothers' motive, ‘consistent with what he told investigators while he was in custody.’ Massachusetts police added that Dzhokhar wrote ‘Fuck America’ on the side panel of the boat.

Read closely, this portrays Miller as a dummy for an unidentified ventriloquist, probably governmental, conveying vivid details that the newshawk Miller hasn’t observed personally, but "had been told." Nor has anyone else channeled this unnamed “source.” Not only may this "scoop" be wholly fictional, even if superficially credible, but it epitomizes single-source sensational journalism devoid of verifiable evidence more typical of, say, the National Enquirer. If such evidence can’t be made public, be ever more skeptical about the major media channel. Note as well that Miller had previously worked as the FBI's principal national spokesmen, which means that he knows well, perhaps too well, what kinds of scoops would benefit reporters like himself.

In any case, whatever Todashev could say won’t be heard. My father as a lawyer prosecuting the Mafia seventy years ago once told me that he feared not, because the Mafia knew that the government would substitute another lawyer. However, anyone possessing unique information, as maybe this Todashev did, was more vulnerable. Simply, whenever a potential witness with knowledge unavailable to anyone else dies mysteriously, be generally skeptical, even if not sure about what or whom.

If you think backwards, consider that the most obvious beneficiaries of this whole episode are the old American media, trying to best Twitter and other quicker disseminators with claims of more definitive interpretations, even if these are wrong or insufficient. Another beneficiary is the surveillance industry, which demonstrated that, if asked or needed, it can supply the media with pictures about nearly everyone nearly everywhere. This is new. In my neighborhood weekly newspaper in Queens, New York, routinely appear remarkably intimate photographs of alleged perpetrators of various crimes, apparently retrieved from cameras hidden from their view.

On the next level of beneficiaries are the FBI with its wish to capture perpetrators beyond the reach of local police; and, surprise, Russian intelligence, which reportedly knew about the elder brother’s radical nationalism but nonetheless allowed him to return to the USA perhaps to do mischief and which routinely blames domestic Russian discord on Chechens. Secondary American beneficiaries include the security-industrial complex, whose biz needed some pumping; and those wishing to make it harder for Muslims in general and Chechens in particular to enter the US. Though I can’t currently accept one or another alternative scenario about the Boston bombing, may I note that most would discredit one or all of these vested interests.

The British writer Craig Murray, once his country’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, finds it totally implausible that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, already known to the anti-terrorist agencies, could have entered Russia and gone in 2012 to Dagestan, “right in the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching police surveillance,” where he purportedly received “some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security forces.” Murray concludes, “This scenario is simply impossible in the real world.” May I add that, were all these Tsarnaev activities known the American security agencies, the fact of his unobstructed return to the USA becomes a measure of either American incompetence or cunning, especially by people within our security apparatus who envisioned a possible use for him back home. From Tamerlan we can’t know more, as he ain’t talking, also. So much fishy stink.

Since so much in the press’s latest story smells insufficient, especially after such a patent rush to judgment, may I suggest that we deserve from all news media more investigations with more verifiable evidence. In late July, as I write, Google responses to “Tsarnaev” gave higher rankings to websites expressing skepticism, if not innocence, than those affirming guilt. Precisely because the press, in cahoots with law enforcement agencies, sought closure that wasn’t persuasive, doubt results.

“One has to bear in mind that the intelligence community does not share all its information with public, i.e., how much information the Russians shared with the US and when and what the American intelligence community did with it,” wisely writes a friend who works in the US for another country’s foreign ministry. “So the story is not over yet and one has to be more patient with this story.” To pesky questions and serious incongruities should American news media and perhaps this skeptic and his readers hope to return.


The title of Richard Kostelanetz’s most recent collection of criticism is Skeptical Essays (Autonomedia, 2010).


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