By Janet Reitman
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS
Peter Payack awoke around 4 a.m. on April 19th, 2013, and saw on his TV the grainy surveillance photo of the kid walking out of the minimart. The boy, identified as “Suspect #2” in the Boston bombing, looked familiar, thought Payack, a wrestling coach at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. On the other hand, there were a million skinny kids with vaguely ethnic features and light-gray hoodies in the Boston area, and half the city was probably thinking they recognized the suspect. Payack, whod been near the marathon finish line on the day of the bombing and had lost half of his hearing from the blast, had hardly slept in four days. But he was too agitated to go back to bed.
Later that morning, he received a telephone call from his son. The kid in the photo? “Dad, that’s Jahar.”
“I felt like a bullet went through my heart,” the coach recalls. “To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality.”
People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that “made him that dude you could always just vibe with,” one friend says. He had been a captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin wrestling team for two years and a promising student. He was also “just a normal American kid,” as his friends described him, who liked soccer, hip-hop, girls; obsessed over The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; and smoked a copious amount of weed.
Payack stared at his TV, trying to reconcile Dzhokhar, the bomber accused of unspeakable acts of terrorism, with the teenage boy who had his American nickname “Jahar” inscribed on his wrestling jacket. He’d worn it all the time.
That afternoon, Payack spoke with CNN, where he issued a direct appeal. “Jahar,” he said, “this is Coach Payack. There has been enough death, destruction. Please turn yourself in.”
At that precise moment, just west of Cambridge, in suburban Watertown, Jahar Tsarnaev lay bleeding on the floor of a 22-foot motorboat dry-docked behind a white clapboard house. He’d been wounded just after midnight in a violent confrontation with police that had killed his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan. For the next 18 hours, he would lie quietly in the boat, as the dawn broke on a gray day and thousands of law-enforcement officials scoured a 20-block area in search of him. He was found just after 6 p.m., though it would take nearly three more hours for FBI negotiators to persuade him to surrender.
The following morning, Payack received a text from one of the agents with the FBI’s Crisis Negotiating Unit. He’d heard Payack’s televised appeal, told him he’d invoked the coach’s name while speaking with Jahar. “I think it helped,” the agent said. Payack was relieved. “Maybe by telling Jahar that I was thinking about him, it gave him pause,” Payack says. “Maybe he’d seen himself going out as a martyr for the cause. But all of a sudden, here’s somebody from his past, a past that he liked, that he fit in with, and it hit a soft spot.”
When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jahar appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But “the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all,” he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: “Fuck America.”