Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rolling Stone vs Boston Magazine; Sgt. Sean Murphy vs Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

First, WOW! I can't believe it's been over two months since my last post! Time has gone by so quickly that it's hard to conceive that it's been so long. I've actually written a couple of things but just didn't get around to fine tuning and posting. That'll happen in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, here are my thoughts on a recent controversy surrounding the issuance of the latest edition of Rolling Stone magazine. This issue has an innocent-looking image of then 19 year old (Dzhokar) Jahar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings, gracing the cover. The infamous "Cover of the Rolling Stone" coveted by musicians and other celebrities and persons of some import. Inside is an article that discusses, among other things, how no one in Jahar's circle, people who had known him for years, would have predicted that he was capable of such an act, capable of harboring inside himself whatever it was that drove him to allegedly join with his brother and commit acts of terrorism against his adopted country. Many folks in the greater Boston area were outraged after learning of the cover image. There were vehement calls for boycotts, demands that Rolling Stone not release the issue or, failing that, that area stores and newsstands pull it off the shelves. A couple of stores did make that decision. 

One person in particular was incensed by the innocent, almost angelic image the magazine put on the cover. That person is a Massachusetts State Police officer, Sgt. Sean Murphy, whose official responsibility is a photographer who documents crime scenes and evidence. Sgt. Murphy had photographed much of the hunt for Jahar Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan. One of the scenes he documented was the eventual capture of a weak, wounded and bloodied Jahar, who was discovered hiding in a covered boat in a backyard. At work Murphy had access to the photos he'd shot at that scene and he decided that those photos, depicting what is being called the monster Jahar, the nearly dead terrorist covered in dirt and blood, should be the images the people of Boston should see. That those images could somehow help heal the suffering from the bombing by imprinting in people's minds images of someone on whom they could feel comfortable focusing their anger and, for some, their hate. And that they would serve to warn off anybody considering committing copycat crimes or even potential terrorists thinking about more attacks. 

So Sgt. Murphy took it upon himself to release several photos taken at that last scene, as well as others taken at official planning sessions and during field strategizing during the actual manhunt. Knowing he had no authorization to do so, and admitting such to editors of Boston Magazine, he released to them a number of images, which they then posted on their website, where, of course, they were immediately picked up by hundreds of media outlets and bloggers. The actual Boston Magazine issue containing the images will not be released until next month as the images were received after the current issue had gone to press. Many people applaud Sgt. Murphy for his actions, even while knowing full well that he acted on his own, outside the scope of his duties and without proper authorization. Some have heralded him as a hero, even recommending him for "a medal" for doing what they consider the right thing. He stands by what he did and Boston Magazine stands behind him and what they did with the photos he gave them Sgt. Murphy knew he was igniting another controversy. But it appears that he saw it as a controlled burn intended to force whatever wildfires of emotion were ignited by the Rolling Stone cover to turn back on themselves till they burned out.

So, anyway, here's my take on it. I am a firm believer in our rights as American citizens, but I understand there are limitations to those rights. I am also a believer in the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty. And that the acquittal of a defendant does not necessarily (though it certainly can be the case) mean that said defendant is innocent of the charges, only that either there were extenuating circumstances or for whatever reason  the prosecution could not meet its burden of proof.  Many people will find my essay polarizing. Fine. This is a sensitive subject and many feelings are still raw. Please bear in mind that I write this openly and honestly, with no ill will intended. All I ask is that you set aside your emotions and judge the issues at hand on their merits. And please, feel free to comment on it, agree or disagree, but respectfully. And if it behooves you, do read the Rolling Stone article. A writer at Slate also wrote an essay that you might be interested in. I will attempt to link to both at the end of this essay. 

Here's what I wrote. I apologize for the length, and I apologize for repeating some of it in the above intro, which I just wrote today. The essay itself was written a couple of days ago:

There's been some controversy lately, especially in the Boston area, regarding photographs of Dzhokar (Jahar) Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect of the April 15th bombings in Boston near the Marathon finish line. Tsarnaev's older brother Tamerlan, thought at this point to have conceived of and orchestrated the bombings, was killed as a result of an attempt to capture the two suspects.

Rolling Stone magazine published its August 3rd issue, released this week in print but parts of which were made available online last week, depicting an image of the 19 year old suspect on its cover. The photo is one that was used by law enforcement and the media to help identify Jahar Tsarnaev as the search for the suspects began. It is an image that looks like a lot of images seen on RS covers in the past, mostly of musicians and other celebrities or people in the news. And it could also have been the image of a pop star found on the covers of teen magazines or the walls of teenage girls. In reality it is a photo of an alleged domestic terrorist accused of helping to build and plant bombs that killed three people and maimed and injured nearly two hundred others, all spectators at a world class athletic event. He's also accused of being involved in the killing of an MIT police officer and the wounding of an MBTA police officer during the manhunt and subsequent police chase of the two brothers.

Reaction to both the fact Rolling Stone had put an image of Jahar on its cover and the "pop star" image it used was predictably mixed. Many people, literally thousands, were outraged, claiming RS was glorifying Tsarnaev and terrorism, and that such glorification would trigger copycat behavior in others who would seek the same celebrity status. Though their outrage was often not expressed so eloquently, the point was repeatedly made. It was obvious, and even sort of understandable, that the people who found the cover so offensive were responding emotionally. Many expressed concern for the victims and their families, concern that the seeing or even just knowing about the cover would rip the scabs off still healing wounds. Others considered it to be an homage to a terrorist who had not only targeted Boston but struck at its very core, the traditional running of the Boston Marathon on Patriots' Day, the day when the people of Massachusetts celebrate the birth of the American Revolution at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. And a large number showed their true colors, whether because of ignorance, fear, or basal prejudices, by claiming that Rolling Stone was promoting fundamentalist followers of Islam and the terrorist acts they commit. As far as they were concerned, there is no place in the American sphere where even any mention of Islam belongs.  Despite the fact that, according to the evidence we, the public, have seen, through the media and from accounts related by some who experienced the tragedy first-hand, IT APPEARS that Jahar Tsarnaev WAS involved in the execution of the attack, we don't yet know if, or how much, he was involved in the planning. We also don't know if there were any extenuating circumstances that drove him to participate. And that brings up the question of the article inside RS; the article, the story, that speaks of the Jahar Tsarnaev shown "on the cover of the Rolling Stone" as Dr. Hook says.

I'll leave it up to you to read the accompanying article so you can come to your own conclusions. To discover WHY the editors chose that one specific image to emblazon on its cover. To see and understand who Jahar Tsarnaev was, what his life was like, who his many friends were. I'll give you the basics but the RS article gives so much more.

Jahar had become a typical American kid since his ethnic Chechen family moved to the United States. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eight years old and had spent his life in Kyrgyzstan until the family moved to Dagestan for one year. Then, at the age of nine he traveled with his parents to the U.S., leaving his older brother and two sisters behind. Soon to be known by his Americanized name Jahar, the young boy assimilated well, adopting the English language, making quick friends, doing well at school. The Tsarnaev patriarch, Anzor, was a traditionalist Muslim. There was no room in his heart for extreme fundamentalists, the kinds of followers who were radicalized, many joining terrorist cells and advocating warlike actions against those it saw as either outright enemies or threats to fundamental Islamic life. 
This is the father who raised the Tsarnaev brothers. But there was another threat the Tsarnaevs feared. In their first year in America, Anzor Tsarnaev applied for political asylum for his family. As ethnic Chechens they could expect persecution, and worse, if they returned to Dagestan. Asylum was granted and he was able to bring his two daughters and his then sixteen year old son Tamerlan to Cambridge, MA. As recent immigrants granted political asylum, the Tsarnaevs were eligible for certain public assistance to help them establish a home and livelihoods. The kids were enrolled in public schools. Tamerlan attended the challenging Cambridge Rindge and Latin School before graduating and moving on to Community College after being refused admission to the University of Massachusetts - Boston. 

After grade school Jahar followed Tamerlan to Rindge and Latin, where he excelled as a wrestler. He got along well with teammates, seemed to make friends easily. Unlike his brother, who often complained about not having friends, Jahar seemed to fit in easily in any situation. He graduated high school and was accepted to UMass- Dartmouth where he made more good friends. By all accounts he was a well-liked kid, he was comfortable as an American. Or so people thought. In fact, ironically the date was September 11, 2012 when Jahar was sworn in as a US citizen. A young, male follower of Islam became an American citizen, with all the rights that citizenship carried, on 9/11.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in the US on a green card, having been refused citizenship for violating the requirements necessary. So that's part of the story behind the Rolling Stone cover. And it's part of Dzhokhar Jahar Tsarnaev's story.  

The point of all the background and the more in-depth article in the magazine, was to show people how difficult it is to determine who may or may not pose a threat to us and our American way of life. The point was to show that the next terrorist threat can come from the kid who sat behind yours in English Lit., the kid who partnered up with your neighbor's son at wrestling practice, the kid who bummed a ride home from you that one time the gang went to the movies. But sadly that story would be lost on many. The opportunity to learn valuable information, to rethink how we look at people and assess them, to perhaps develop a sixth sense that might warn us that a person may be changing, may be having trouble living in the world he seemed to love while being pulled by an idolized brother into a different world, one that hated the world he loved, would remain lessons unlearned.
Yes, many people were so focused on, so incensed by, the Rolling Stone cover that they refused to even consider reading the accompanying article. They did not want to discuss it. Some were enraged, incensed. Some succumbed to their emotions. One of those people is Sergeant Sean Murphy, a tactical photographer with the Massachusetts State Police Troopers. As an official State Police photographer, Murphy was intimately involved with the bombing case and the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. And he had knowledge of the existence of photos he and others took, at the bombing scene, at tactical meetings and, ultimately during the manhunt for the brothers. So it's not surprising that Sgt. Murphy was there during the police chase that took place from Thursday evening, April 18th, when the Tsarnaevs allegedly shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier, carjacked another man, confessing to him that they were the Boston Bombers before letting him go, and led the police on an extended chase through the streets of Cambridge into the suburb of Watertown. During the chase, an MBTA police officer was badly wounded, as was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who later died either from gunshot wounds or from being run over by a vehicle being driven by his brother, or from a combination of injuries from both events. Regardless, Jahar eluded the police. He abandoned the stolen vehicle he was driving and fled on foot. He continued to elude police even as a Watertown neighborhood was locked down so police could search every house, every outbuilding, every hiding place in the yards. Eventually, just as police determined Tsarnaev wasn't in the area they had searched, a citizen noticed red stains on the white plastic covering his boat. He looked under the cover and saw a wounded Jahar laying on the floor of the boat, not moving. He alerted police. The police fired multiple shots at the boat, lobbed in a couple of flash grenades, and used a robot to try and remove the plastic sheeting that encased the boat. Eventually, after getting help from Tsarnaev's high school wrestling coach, Tsarnaev surrendered and weakly eased his way out of the boat. Sgt. Murphy was there to document everything that happened in that back yard right up until the moment the ambulance carried Tsarnaev's weakened, bullet ridden and bloodied body off to the hospital.

So Sgt. Murphy had seen first hand, and documented photographically, a Jahar Tsarnaev who looked very different than the soft faced, curly haired pop star staring out from the cover of Rolling Stone with what some described as big, dreamy brown eyes. Sgt. Murphy saw Jahar the terrorist, Jahar the child killer, the maimer, the cop killer. He saw an American enemy, someone who had escaped political persecution in his homeland and come to enjoy all that freedom in America had to offer only to hatefully and violently turn against it. Along with everybody else, Murphy was trying to process what had happened; why; how. And then Rolling Stone decided to include an article about the before Jahar. The good Jahar. The cool kid everybody liked. The kid who maybe turned down a meal or skipped an outing because he was Islamic and followed its religious restrictions much the way an Irish Catholic kid from Boston might skip a trip to McDonald's on a Friday during Lent. But then, the magazine decided this story deserved the cover. The Rolling Stone cover. Man, it doesn't get any cooler than that, right? And Sgt. Murphy saw the image on the cover, the nearly angelic look, the one of the all-American kid.  And boy, was he pissed. Because some of the last images he had shot of Tsarnaev showed him barely able to hold himself up. Barely able to drag his battered body out of his hiding place, unable to move his left arm. And, most importantly, with a bright red laser dot on his head, moving as he did, staying centered on the frontal area of Tsarnaev's hat, just above his blood-streaked face. Right where the police sniper was aiming, sniper rifle "locked and loaded" and waiting for the go ahead to fire. Those were the images Sgt. Murphy carried in his mind. Nevermind the images Jahar's friends saw when they thought of him. 

So Murphy decided that we needed to see his images. He decided that the Rolling Stone cover (again, no consideration for the story inside that so justified the cover) was so offensive, so insulting to the people of the greater Boston community, so hurtful to the victims and their families, to the heroic first responders, that he was going to release the photos he took. He admits he made that decision knowing there would be repercussions, from his job, from the state. He knew those repercussions could be serious enough to cost him his rank, maybe his job. Maybe even, temporarily, his freedom if he was charged and convicted of stealing government property. Because the images Murphy took were not his own personal photos. They were official police photos that documented the commission of multiple crimes and they are evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation. But Murphy decided that we needed to see those images, that he had no choice, that his conscience could not allow the people of greater Boston to see and think of Jahar Tsarnaev as anything but a monster, a bruised and bloodied monster. He wanted anybody who might be considering doing us more harm, whether a psychopathic copycat or another Islamic terrorist, to see what would happen to them. Though Sgt. Murphy knew he had no authorization to do so, he contacted Boston Magazine and offered to give them copies of the images for publication in their magazine. They, of course, accepted.
It makes me uncomfortable when a magazine publishes photos knowing the photographer was not authorized to release them (as both Sgt. Murphy and Boston Magazine admitted at the outset.) Knowing the photos are work product and belong to the state, it was irresponsible for Murphy to attempt to get them published. He knew it. He admitted it. Those photos should never have left the control of the State Police. In essence, Sgt. Murphy stole the photos from his job to satisfy his own concerns over the controversial Rolling Stone issue with Tsarnaev's image on the cover. Interestingly, it could as easily be said that the images released by Murphy could be viewed by potential copycats as they show that Tsarnaev was able to (allegedly) commit the bombing and then survive a police chase and a manhunt and live to bask in his new celebrity status. Or that they might generate sympathy for Tsarnaev, some going so far as to say they make him into a martyr for his cause.

So on the one hand we have thousands of people, most of whom did not bother to read the Rolling Stone article and therefore totally missed the point of their running the cover image, demanding that Rolling Stone not release the issue and, if/when that didn't work, demanding that, at least in local stores, the issue be pulled from inventory.  On the other hand we now have a police officer who violated procedure and very possibly broke several laws, and a local magazine that, in a manner, aided and abetted his efforts. Once Sgt. Murphy broke the rules and supplied the photos to Boston Magazine, the magazine made the decision to release the photos, publishing them on its website before its next issue went to print. It is the proverbial bell that cannot be unrung. As well, the photos have appeared on hundreds, if not thousands, of other websites, newsfeeds, and social networking sites.

But how does the magazine justify ITS actions? They were made aware by Murphy that he was acting on his own without permission of his supervisors. The magazine's editors had to know, as any reasonable person would, that Murphy had literally stolen the photos, even if he gave them the files rather than physical prints. They were not his to give. So Boston Magazine could be subject to receiving stolen property. Not to mention violating copyright laws. Again they, and Murphy, cannot claim ignorance of copyright law. Boston Magazine has published a statement that they received the photos lawfully. Bull. They know what work product is and who owns it, and they know the photos were from Murphy's job.   When a photographer works for an employer the employer, not the photographer, owns the copyrights. And Boston Magazine cannot claim Freedom of the Press in such a situation, as they have. Freedom of the Press does not apply when the press knowingly publishes illegally gotten information, and those photos were illegally obtained by Murphy. There are legal avenues for either Murphy or the magazine to pursue if they wanted the photos released. That decision would have been made by the prosecution or the court. At any rate, the prosecution could have asked that the photos be kept under seal. But why would they consider that at this stage? I'm sure they felt reasonably sure that the photos would not be released without at least their knowledge, if not their consent. They likely never conceived a State Trooper, a seasoned Sergeant, would act as irresponsibly, and dare I say reprehensibly, as Murphy did?   
As well as the legalities of the release of the photos, one has to question the potential damage to Tsarnaev's trial. Has the jury pool been tainted? After all, the stated intent for releasing/publishing the photos was to show Tsarnaev as a monster. Can the defense claim that the release of the photos was prejudicial to their client? Has the prosecution's case been damaged by this? 

Many are lauding Murphy as a hero. But we cannot let our emotions overcome the rule of law. Isn't that exactly what terrorists do? Doesn't the release of the capture photos just fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from the RS cover? When, in light of an upcoming trial there needs to be a place of neutrality?

Personally, like others and based on what I watched as it unfolded,  I think that, given the evidence publicized before this battle of the photos began, Tsarnaev is guilty of planting one of the bombs. Whether he helped build them is speculation. Whether he actually fired a gun at police officers is speculation. I believe he's guilty of stealing a vehicle and fleeing police. But I also believe in his basic right to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. We haven't been made privvy to the possibility of extenuating circumstances. Those could weigh heavily in his favor. There has been speculation that Jahar Tsarnaev idolized his older brother, Tamerlan, and was following Tamerlan's wishes. That it was Tamerlan who was the radicalized Islam fundamentalist; Tamerlan who had trained with possible Al Quaida forces. There have also been suggestions made that Jahar had been brainwashed and radicalized by his older brother. Or just blinded enough by love for him that he couldn't say no, couldn't walk away, couldn't live with the loss of his brother had Tamerlan failed and been captured or killed. Who knows, maybe Tamerlan threatened to step into the crowd with a suicide bomb vest and kill himself if his brother didn't help. Any of these scenarios could help Jahar's defense.

Given the history of the unpredictability of American juries, especially in the past few decades in high profile cases, this trial is not a slam dunk. The prosecution will need every advantage it can gain. And having a rogue cop releasing evidence to the public to make himself feel better is NOT a prosecutorial advantage. We need to stop acting on emotions when there are legalities involved. We were all traumatized by the events on April 15 th and the following days. We are all sympathetic to the victims and their families. But we cannot let those emotions cloud our judgement when it comes to applying the rule of law and using common sense. To do so gives the terrorists the power we are claiming we don't want them to have.