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 three 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 the proverbial bird -- 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.
CNN's melodramatic "news" description was typical: "He glares into the camera defiantly, his middle finger raised in a profane salute." Glares defiantly, a profane salute. A reporter with CBS's Boston affiliate, Jim Armstrong, described how prominently the bird-flipping photo was being used by prosecutors to argue for Tsarnaev's execution:
The Murdochian id of American journalism, the New York Post, asked: "Could a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev giving the finger ensure his death penalty?" The reporter for Fox's Boston station, Catherine Parrotta, observed that "a collective gasp was heard in the overflow courtroom as the photo of Tsarnaev giving the camera the middle finger was shown."
It was, explicitly, the prosecutors' intent to provoke exactly this reaction: this one photo, standing alone, was designed to produce a visceral, bottomless contempt for Tsarnaev which even disgust at his actual crime could not achieve. The expectation was that it would irreversibly establish the jury and public's view of him as not just evil but sub-human, deserving of state-imposed death. "This is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: unconcerned, unrepentant and unchanged," said the federal prosecutor as she touted the photo. "Without remorse, he remains untouched by the grief and the loss that he caused."