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The Last Thing the Terrorist Steals From You

What happens when suicide forestalls any possibility of justice?
Law enforcement officials search for evidence after Mark Anthony Conditt, the suspected package bomber, blew himself up inside his vehicle as police approached to take him into custody in Round Rock, Texas, on March 21st, 2018.

Law enforcement officials search for evidence after Mark Anthony Conditt, the suspected package bomber, blew himself up inside his vehicle as police approached to take him into custody in Round Rock, Texas, on March 21st, 2018

This was going to be a different piece of writing, a piece about the history of how bombings work as machinery for fear; a meditation on churches crumbling and the bodies inside. Any serialized attack creates a very specific type of anxiety. The attack is a way to weaponize geography, particularly if specific communities feel targeted. In the case of Austin, Texas—where five package bombs exploded from March 2nd to March 20th, killing two civilians and injuring five—the targets of the attacks initially seemed to be families of color. The bomber would deliver packages to doorsteps, where they would then explode in the hands of people who picked them up. As the bombings continued, I kept thinking about how the bomb has been used as a tool in this country, to oppress through fear. And I wondered what justice might eventually look like.

But now the Austin bomber is dead. Twenty-three-year-old Mark Conditt blew himself up in his vehicle as police officers approached it in the early morning hours of Wednesday. Was this justice? I admit that I have no real use for the death penalty, especially when it is used as a tool of revenge. But when a terrorist takes his own life after claiming victims, justice feels shortchanged. That isn't a new tactic, no matter how one defines terror. And, given that the suspect is white, we already know the routine. Even as I type this, we are learning about the interior of Mark Conditt's personal life. Thanks to reporters' chats with his neighbors, we now know some nuances of the things he enjoyed: He gamed, he went to church for a while, and then he didn't. So much of this account is designed to fill in the blank spaces between person and motive, to help explain how a person goes from some stereotypical idea of "normal" to carrying out a horrific act of violence. Often, that type of sympathetic obituary is reserved for those who are white. It doesn't even strike me as interesting anymore to scroll through the headlines, so bent to the will of the suspect whenever the suspect is not of color.

What interested me most as I read of Conditt's death Wednesday morning was the void that he left behind. For those unaffected personally by the violence of terrorism, it can be enough merely to wish the terrorist dead. After the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, I scrolled my news feeds while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still on the run and saw people rooting for his death, hoping he might perish by a Boston police officer's bullets. I know the feeling well. In the moments after the news arrives, when the anger and disbelief are fresh, it is then that so many of us, even those of us who might be non-violent by nature, want to destroy the source of our rage.

It was at night, after a long drive, when I heard the news that Dylann Roof had walked into a Charleston church and opened fire on the black congregants. I watched the news at the edge of a hotel bed, and I do not remember when my hand began shaking, but perhaps it was at the mention of grandmothers rushing to the floor to cover up their grandchildren as the bullets were fired. I do remember standing after watching the news and whispering I hope he dies into the air, knowing that I did not have the power to kill him, and that I wouldn't want anyone in power to actually kill him, but also knowing that perhaps some victim who had survived might want to watch if he were executed. And I remember being upset with myself; not at my brief moment of wishing him dead, or at the prospect that he might die, but rather at the thought that Dylann Roof's death was one of the few things that might grant a brief peace to someone left bereft because of his hate.

My mind darted there again on Wednesday morning, when I read of Mark Conditt's death. He took himself out before he could face any judgment for his actions, and I have to imagine that his suicide leaves a very specific void for those whom he victimized: the injured, the widowed and orphaned, the others who had to live nearly three weeks in constant fear of his violence. I wonder if it matters whether or not a terrorist leaves the Earth of their own will, or if their absence in death doesn't allow for a proper healing. Americans are deeply divided over whether the man who delivers death should receive death in return, or at least a sentence we can convince ourselves is somehow commensurate to death. I don't know what to do with my distaste for the death penalty, not when I'm looking at someone like Conditt, like Roof—people who must be punished, in the way that I have seen people of color punished for far less.

But Mark Conditt is gone, and with him goes a small sense of what justice might look like. Terrorism is what Conditt offered: a burst of lingering fear, followed by the vanishing of its architect. I have black friends in Austin who were afraid to live in their homes this month, and so I was angry at Mark Conditt. My anger wanted him to live. True justice means consequences, a judgment delivered on the terms of the public, not on the terms of the terrorist, who has already dictated the fears and lives of others. I don't know what to make of rage when I don't have a living person to direct it at, and so it just sits until the next time, growing larger. Something about that is very American too.