Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery was fairly busy over the weekend as parents, wives, husbands, children, and friends of the dead killed in Iraq or Afghanistan brought fresh flowers, rearranged plants, shed tears, and shared memories in anticipation of the approaching Memorial Day. It is a solemn, peaceful parcel of land that holds a beauty all its own.
Halfway down a long line of white headstones there is the grave of John Hart, born September 18, 1983, killed outside Baghdad on October 18, 2003, one month after he turned 20. He was the only son of John and Alma Hart of Bedford, Massachusetts, friends of mine.
He was killed when his unit, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, 173rd Infantry Brigade, was ambushed in Anbar Province. That unit, along with a lot of others, was sent to war woefully under-equipped.
John Hart was manning a .50 caliber machine gun in a Humvee that afforded no more protection than a Toyota Highlander. Iraqi bullets tore through the unarmored skin of the vehicle, and through Pfc. Hart too.
The invasion of Iraq was near criminal in its origin. It helped ignite the Middle East in a consuming round of tribal warfare, led to the deaths of an unknown number of Iraqis, helped create at least two failed states—Iraq and Syria—along with a barbaric unit called ISIS, swallowed billions of our currency, and, most importantly, cost the lives of nearly 4,500 members of the American military.
As I thought of young John Hart and his broken family, forever sad, I could not help but think of the strange threads of history and how events are often thinly linked even though they seem so different, so apart from each other. As I was walking across Memorial Bridge in Washington, the ugly thought of another young man, a demon seemingly without conscience or character, came to mind: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Last week, of course, he was sentenced to death by a federal court jury for his role at age 19 in blowing up the Boston Marathon in April 2013, killing four and wounding and maiming hundreds of others. He was born 10 years after John Hart. He came to the United States in 2001. He became a citizen of the U.S. on September 11, 2012. September 11!
In March 2003, when Tsarnaev was 9 years old, the United States invaded Iraq. The “cakewalk’ quickly turned into a calamity. Then the calamity turned into a cauldron of Sunni versus Shia. In October 2003, young John Hart was killed and soon the ethnic and religious hatred within Iraq grew so quickly, was so deep, so intense, that it thrives today. Yesterday, Ramadi fell to ISIS.
And somewhere along the line this Tsarnaev and his brother made the decision to become holy warriors, killers on a mission, claiming they did what they did on Marathon Day in Boston because they were fueled by anger over America’s disrespect of Muslims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, a federal court jury took the breath out of many when it sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21 now, to death by lethal injection. The verdict seemed to surprise a lot of people because Massachusetts has a national image and reputation of being more liberal than most states, with polls constantly showing the death penalty not favored by a majority.
But juries are made up of human beings, and this jury came to work each day bearing the burden of knowing they held the life of another in their hands. Their work, their verdict, is a tribute to a judicial system that at its best still stands as a glowing symbol to the world. Tsarnaev got more of a chance than he gave any of his victims.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience,” one of the jurors said the other day over the phone. “We sat and listened to all the evidence. And we sat and looked at him every day and his expression rarely changed.
“The evidence was overwhelming. But I believe the video the government showed us of him placing his pressure cooker directly behind Martin Richard told us, told me at least, that he simply did not care who he killed.”
Martin Richard was 8 years old and perhaps 8 feet in front of Tsarnaev when Tsarnaev placed his backpack on the sidewalk directly behind the boy. He knew where he was, knew who was around him, left it there anyway. His twisted mind’s target of opportunity? A child, his parents, and his sister.
“My conscience is clear,” the juror said. “And I don’t know that he has one.”
Unfortunately for those who lost so much when Tsarnaev and his brother showed the world their twisted evil, the appeals process over the next decade or so will keep putting the name back into the news. More evidence that there really is no such thing as closure for many who survive tragedy.
But there is another name to remember and treasure; another life to recall and honor. And it is the name of John D. Hart, who died in Iraq along with too many others and whose life and memory means so much more than the one who just dominated the headlines on his way to Death Row.
For more from Mike Barnicle, visit mikebarnicle.com.