All one has to do is consider the eyewitness accounts of the shootout in Watertown to realize that the Tsarnaev brothers were almost certainly not – as a surprisingly large number of people posting comments on this site and around the Internet seem to believe – harmless naïfs who did nothing wrong. Whether or not they planted the bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, whether or not they acted alone or in concert with others, whether they were ideologues or dupes, it seems evident that they were involved in some kind of violent adventure culminating in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the shooting and apprehension of his brother Dzhokhar.
I spent Wednesday of this week talking to residents of the streets where the shootouts took place, and there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that both brothers were there, were armed, and threw bombs at police.
Nonetheless, many aspects of the story remain unclear, and decidedly troublesome. And getting to the bottom of this complex story is not just an option – we cannot afford as a society to have large traumas of this sort come and go without clarity. Otherwise, we are all dupes, of one kind or another.
We’ve raised reasonable questions about the events surrounding the Marathon bombing in previous articles, from the presence of mysterious black-clad security men with well-stuffed backpacks at the race to the FBI and CIA’s awareness of the Tsarnaev family long before April 15, 2013.
Now, some might say that nothing else matters as long as police got their men. However, it is often in the details, the “weeds,” if you will, where we find that a narrative can be useful as far as it goes and yet terribly misleading in terms of what it all means. As we’ve noted, many much-loved historical narratives turn out to be little more than carefully crafted myths around a few core facts.
Our media and our leading interpreters of events explain everything in terms that the unsophisticated can easily grasp. Yet in the real world, happenings may take place for a welter of reasons that even those directly involved may not be aware of.
It is with this in mind that we’ve been down in the weeds.
If there’s one thing out of all the “facts” that emerged in the early hours and days after the bombing that cemented the Tsarnaevs’ capital-G Guilt, it was, unquestionably, the killing of MIT police officer Sean Collier on the night of Thursday, April 18, three days after the explosions at the Marathon.
At the time of Collier’s shooting, the FBI had just released video of two unnamed “persons of interest” walking with backpacks – shown amid many other people walking with backpacks. The still-anonymous Tsarnaevs were nothing more than people with whom the FBI wanted to talk. No hard evidence had been released that connected them to the bombing itself.
Within hours of the FBI video release, everything went nuts. First came word of “officer down” at MIT. Then, quickly, news of a carjacking. Then police swarming everywhere. Then a shootout and the death of one suspect, followed by a lull, and then the discovery and near-death of the second suspect.
Soon came the narrative to explain much, if not all. The suspects in the video had been behind both the bombing and the killing of the police officer. We knew that because the carjacking victim had escaped, and told police and later selected media how his captors had confessed to him.
Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz gained cooperation from the still-unnamed hostage (nicknamed “Danny”). Here’s a portion of Danny’s tale, in which the elder Tsarnaev, Tamerlan, confessed during the carjacking:
He asked if [Danny] had followed the news about Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings…
“I did that,” said the man, who would later be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”
We’ll have more to say about the carjacking in a subsequent article. But for now, the key thing to remember is that in some ways, the shooting of Officer Collier immediately before the carjacking and the alleged confession in the car – to both crimes – were absolutely essential in creating the first profile of the Tsarnaevs as murder-minded individuals, not just two guys on a video wearing backpacks.
Collier as Officer Tippit
Besides playing a central role in establishing a case against the brothers, Collier’s death also served a powerful symbolic purpose in the official narrative, with a huge memorial service for the MIT officer on April 24, addressed by Vice President Biden. Throughout, the spotlight has been on Collier as Hero – a kind of ritualistic hagiography devoid of any inclination to investigate the actual circumstances of his death.
For students of history, however, this part of the narrative had a familiar ring. Exactly half a century ago, another traumatic event took place: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The big break in that case came several hours later, when a police officer, J.D. Tippit, was shot and killed. Soon, one of the many employees in a tall building on Kennedy’s parade route, Lee Harvey Oswald, was connected to both events. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he had recently spent time in Russia. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he had been under scrutiny by the FBI before the crime.
In both cases, it was the killing of a police officer that turbocharged the police pursuit – and that, once the suspect was apprehended, convinced the public quickly that the police had their man.
Until the shooting of officer Collier, the Tsarnaevs were just two guys seen on a video wearing backpacks. And until the Tippit shooting, Oswald was just one of many employees in a building that most eyewitnesses felt was not even the source of the shots that killed Kennedy.
In both cases, the shooting of the police officer did not make a lot of sense in the context of the “main event” – but nevertheless gave the pursuit a jolt of adrenaline. Only later would crucial details of the narrative be changed – at a time when few would notice.
In the case of Oswald, serious doubts would emerge as to whether he had killed Officer Tippit.
In the case of Officer Collier, if we look carefully, we can see that the script was rewritten after most people stopped paying attention.
Early reports left the impression that Collier had some kind of active interaction with his killers.
Here’s the Associated Press from that night:
Cambridge police and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office says the officer was responding to a report of a disturbance when he was shot multiple times.
Here’s the MIT News – the publication of the university’s administration – several days later:
On the evening of Thursday, April 18, MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed in the line of duty following an altercation at the corner of Vassar Street and Main Street on the MIT campus.
And here’s the Los Angeles Times on April 23, five days after Collier’s death:
WASHINGTON–Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Thursday because they wanted his service revolver, according to two federal government law enforcement officials who have been briefed on the Boston Marathon manhunt.
They came upon Collier outside a gas station and convenience store near the MIT campus in Cambridge. He was apparently shot multiple times, but had left a safety device on his holster that the suspects could not unlock to retrieve the weapon.
It was unclear which brother shot the officer, the officials said. However, authorities have obtained a surveillance photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, dressed in a gray hoodie, at the store.
This is a false story, circulated days after the events. Collier was not outside a gas station and convenience store. Dzhokhar certainly appears to have gone into a gas station/convenience store later that evening, but Collier was not there and no murder took place at that time. Collier did not respond to a disturbance. He did not approach anyone. In fact, it’s likely he never even knew who shot him.
To this day, hardly anyone in the general public is aware of this glitch in the narrative. Yet it is very important. Because if the initial story had been, “unknown persons came up behind a police officer sitting quietly in his patrol car and shot him for no apparent reason, not even taking his firearm” – that would no doubt have triggered a very different media response.
Keeping up the Hero Story
It was for some reason very important to someone that the death of this police officer be projected on a massive screen. Consider the content and tone of this, from the Boston Herald:
Thousands of students and law enforcement officers from across the country have packed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus to honor fallen MIT Police Officer Sean Collier who was remembered as a joy-filled, caring and compassionate man who believed kindness could change society.
MIT set aside 15,000 seats at Briggs Field and every one was filled, with law enforcement officers making up two-thirds of the heartbroken audience.
Here’s the Atlantic Wire:
MIT held a public memorial service Wednesday afternoon for fallen officer Sean Collier on their Briggs Field, where the 26-year-old university police officer was remembered for his commitment to the school community, his love of country music, and his dedication to his job. Vice President Joe Biden closed the ceremony’s remarks, offering words of condolence to the family from the perspective of someone who had also lost a child – before offering a scathing indictment of the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorism.
MIT cancelled classes for the service, which brought together members of the MIT community, law enforcement officers, and public officials. A private funeral was held Tuesday. Yesterday, CBS News reported that Collier may have been killed because the Tsarnaev brothers wanted his gun.
Yet, even after it was clear that Collier had done nothing more than sit in his car while someone came up behind him and shot him, the authorities were still feeling it necessary to lay it on thick. On April 25, a week after Collier’s death, the New York Times was reporting
“I [still] consider him a hero,” Boston’s police commissioner, Edward Davis, said in an interview this week. “It was his death that ultimately led to the apprehension. The report of the shot officer led to all those resources being poured in.”
A cop had been shot, “all those resources” were poured into that general vicinity, and a juggernaut had been launched. There was nothing that would reverse it. Indeed, a month after Collier’s death, a Cambridge, MA, brewery announced it was issuing a special “Collier Stout” in his honor.
Why were we more upset over Collier’s death than other deaths of law enforcement personnel? Because it was linked, in the public’s mind, with the assault upon America itself at the Marathon. The killing of Collier, we were told, was an act against us all. “Boston Strong.” “America Strong.” In a sense, when we wore those ribbons, attended those mass ceremonies, we were mourning, yet again, our loss of innocence in the face of a world that seems to be spinning out of control.
Why Was Collier Killed?
Here’s what we were told at the time of that memorial service:
Until now, it is not been clear why the officer – who was laid to rest today at a private funeral service in his hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts – was shot dead.
The officer was slain execution-style as he sat in his patrol car at the MIT campus in the suburb of Cambridge.
But now, according to CBS News, police believe the officer was ambushed by the Tsarnaev brothers in a botched attempt to take his gun to boost their arsenal of just one real gun and a pellet gun.
We have been told that, perhaps, the brothers wanted his gun.
Yet, they did not take it. The police chief explained that maybe they could not get it out of his holster, because it was found still in the holster. But it is also possible that whoever shot him was not interested in taking his gun.
It is also important to understand that the CBS News coverage – including the dubious claim that Collier was killed in an attempt to get his gun, and the belated story that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled a confession on the interior walls of a boat while he lay bloody and grievously wounded – is helmed by John Miller, CBS Senior Correspondent, who between journalistic stints served as the top spokesman for the FBI. In other words, it is an FBI insider who is guiding the narrative. Of course, the FBI itself has serious credibility problems, including the fact that it failed to disclose that it knew exactly who the Tsarnaevs were, long before the bombing. (On May 22, an FBI agent shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, another person of Chechen origin connected to the story and the investigation – whom a friend claims had recently warned him that he felt he was in the process of being framed; and who reportedly had, at the time of his death, just confessed.)
As we previously noted, all of these shootings warrant a closer look – including why so many shots were fired at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he lay wounded in that boat, firing not a single shot, and given the potential importance of him as a witness.
All of this must be addressed. But for the purposes of this article, let’s stay focused on Officer Collier’s death – and the circumstances surrounding it.