Seeing Charlie Hebdo in Boston

Are the Paris attacks reason enough to delay jury selection for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

As last week's horrific attacks unfolded in Paris, they quickly drew comparisons to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured hundreds of others. Despite the different methods of attack, the different origins of the attackers, and the different nature of the targets themselves, the links between Boston and Paris became a salient thread.

One representative lede from The New York Times: "A pair of brothers viewed as homegrown Islamic terrorists. Horrible acts of violence. Manhunts that forced the lockdown of entire neighborhoods."

Here's another similar line from USA Today:

As in Boston, French police were seeking two apparent radicalized brothers who allegedly planned and executed a methodical attack against a specific target that brought another major city to a standstill.

Massachusetts Representative William Keating, quoted in the latter story, said "it's like Boston is reliving what happened all over again." Keating also pointed out the timing—the Paris attacks coincided with the beginning of jury selection in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.

On Tuesday, the symbolic connection between Paris and Boston became tangible as lawyers for Tsarnaev seized upon Keating's remarks in asking that jury selection be delayed at least a month. Tsarnaev's counsel told the judge that the Paris attacks had placed the Boston bombing "at the center of a grim global drama." As the AP reported, the lawyers are arguing that a month is needed "for the extraordinary prejudice flowing from these events—and the comparison of those events to those at issue in this case—to diminish." With 1,400 prospective jurors already screened, jury selection is expected to resume on Thursday.

Previous requests to either delay or move to the Tsarnaev trial outside of Massachusetts were rejected; the rationale for those petitions similarly had to do with the search for impartial listeners. But the question of influence is also something that doesn't end at the jury box.

In pleading not guilty, Tsarnaev and his lawyers are constructing a narrative in which Dzhokhar fell under the sway of his big brother Tamerlan, who was killed during a shootout with police after the bombing.

Influence is also a global matter in the Tsarnaev case. What Paris and Boston share is the outsized specter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam and al-Qaeda propaganda master, who was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2011. Awlaki was said to have inspired countless high-profile attacks including Paris, Boston, and the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner over Detroit in 2009. Tsarnaev's indictment points to his downloading of “The Slicing Sword,” a book with an incendiary foreword by Awlaki.

And so, in a fashion wholly contrary to the victims of Boston or Paris, Awlaki also prejudices from beyond the grave. His sermons remain widely viewed online and his teachings are used to lure terrorist recruits. On Wednesday, one week after the Paris massacre, the top al-Qaeda leader in Yemen released a video in which he took credit for the attack. According to Nasr al-Ansi, al-Qaeda “chose the target, laid the plan, financed the operation.”