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Boston bombing suspects: Lots of pieces, no picture

April 19, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • In this May 4, 2009 photo, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, right, fights during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Boxing Tournament.
In this May 4, 2009 photo, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, right, fights during the 2009… (Rick Egan / Associated Press…)

The events in Boston on Friday -- the gun battle that left one suspect in the marathon bombings dead, the ensuing manhunt for the second suspect -- filled the news pipeline, yet in the most unsatisfying way.

For three days, all we wanted to know was who could have been so cruel as to place shrapnel-filled homemade bombs in the midst of a crowd of unsuspecting people. Then, within hours of the FBI posting pictures from surveillance cameras at the scene, we knew the names of two suspects: 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar.

Now, all we want to know is why.

TIMELINE: The hunt for the Boston bombing suspects

Let me add the obligatory note of caution here. Authorities haven't shared much of the evidence they may have collected linking the Tsarnaevs to the bombings, and no responsible jury would convict either man based on what they have released.

The police have offered a more compelling case that the men were involved in the shootings of two officers, one of whom was killed, Thursday night and early Friday. The chase that followed, in which the suspects allegedly fired and hurled explosives at police, resulted in the death of Tamerlan.

Since the suspects' names were disclosed early Friday, the media have been flooding the airwaves and the Internet with tidbits of biographical information, interviews with the men's friends and acquaintances and excerpts from Dzhokhar's Twitter feed. They'd no doubt be quoting liberally from Tamerlan's as well, except that his tweets are semi-private -- they can be viewed only by the people Tamerlan had granted access.

FULL COVERAGE: Boston Marathon attack

As so often seems to be the case, the media's first drift net caught little of value. No one interviewed, including some of the suspects' relatives, seemed to really know them. They were described as "normal" and "nice" and apolitical, and the acquaintances were shocked by the turn of events. The older was an amateur boxer for a time (as shown above). Dzhokhar's tweets are a mix of party-hearty shout-outs and pseudo-profound observations, which means they could have been written by just about any 19-year-old.

And there's no shortage of conflicting data. For example, the Tsarnaevs were initially described as being from Chechnya, a part of Russia that once was rife with separatist violence. Then they were described as hailing from neighboring Dagestan, a region of Russia more recently at odds with Moscow. The Times is now reporting that they were ethnic Chechens but born in Krygystan, and they were granted asylum in the United States after a brief sojourn in Dagestan. 

What does that reveal about their politics? Who knows? It's like a snippet from a shredded document, useful only if the page can be pieced back together.

The same is true for much of the material coming out about the two men. The media evidently have taken to heart the demand from critics for the raw facts, free of spin. Yet there's no pattern emerging, at least not yet, and no one has yet come up with the glue needed to put the puzzle together.

Which gets us back to the question foremost in people's minds: Why? If the Tsarnaevs were, in fact, the ones behind the marathon bombings, one can only hope that we'll have an answer from them -- a manifesto, a video, a confession. It's hard to imagine justice being served without a motive being revealed. What we're getting now from the media may be interesting, but it's just noise and speculation, really. It's not the answer the people of Boston deserve.

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Surveillance cameras and the Boston Marathon bombing

Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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