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What Explains the Power of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Middle Finger?

(Photo: U.S. Attorney’s Office/AP)

The penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial began Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Boston. Already convicted of 30 felony counts relating to the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, an attack that killed 3 people and maimed dozens more, the 21-year-old will now have the jury effectively decide whether he should spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison without the possibility of parole, or be executed. Federal prosecutors are vehemently arguing for the death penalty.

Paying even casual attention to media coverage of yesterday’s proceedings was surreal. What dominated headlines and journalists’ commentary was the above still photograph of Tsarnaev, taken by prison authorities in July 2013 (roughly three months after the bombing), as he waited alone for hours in a holding cell.

The photo captured the then-teenager extending his middle finger up — flipping a bird, as they say — to the surveillance camera in his cell. The graininess of the photo, and the proximity of his face to the lens, created an image at once menacing and dehumanizing: this encaged, orange jumpsuit-clad monster was in your face, full of unbridled rage and hatred directed right at you. The photo was used to show that, even three months after committing such an atrocity, he lacked any remorse or other redemptive human emotions.



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There are reasons the U.S. is the world’s largest penal state, and among its most oppressive, and those reasons reside in the political and cultural character of the country, and specifically in its desire to impose maximum amounts of pain and suffering under the guise of justice. That’s why even opponents of the death penalty frequently argue that life in prison is worse: it’s always a contest as to how the most suffering can be inflicted.

Tsarnaev’s middle finger provoked seemingly as much disgust as the murders for which he has been convicted because it represented his refusal to submissively play the role assigned to those who are to be punished. The gesture is depicted as a challenge to — a “defiance” of, as CNN put it — proper authority, a crime worse than any murders. As the media tale tells it: rather than prostrating himself before us all and the mighty judicial system we’ve created to justify our imposition of suffering, he’s expressing anger over it, a contempt for it. He’s thus depriving us of the satisfaction and self-validation we crave, and for that he must be punished even further: with death.

Read the full article at The Intercept.

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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