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Mercy as the Highest Form of Patriotism: Thoughts on the Tsarnaev Sentence

Krystle Marie Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and Martin William Richard, an 8-year-old boy, were killed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, just over two years ago. Three days later, the brothers killed Sean Collier, an MIT police officer. They injured 280 others between those injured in the bombings and the police officers who hunted them down. Now, two years later, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all 30 counts levied against him, 17 of which are punishable by death. On May 15, 2015, the same jury that convicted him recommended that he be sentenced to death for six of those counts. His formal sentencing will take place at 9:30 am on June 24, 2015.

The arguments to kill the younger Tsarnaev could not be plainer; he engaged in terrorism against the United States, he killed innocent people in cold blood, and it seems that he is unrepentant. With no conceivable possibility of freedom or reform for Dzhokhar, it seems that the most expedient thing to do would be to take his life. Moreover, grave crimes have been committed and he must be held accountable for the blood he spilled. Knowing all of these things, I reject the notion that killing him is the right thing to do.

My argument therein cannot be reduced to doubt; Tsarnaev’s guilt is clear. It should not be attributed to faith, though the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty is absolute and unshy.

My argument does not overlap with that of Bill and Denise Richard, whose son was killed and whose daughter lost a leg. Their claim, echoed by the Boston Bar Association, that the appeals process associated with the death penalty may draw out his punishment over years and force him back into the public eye is likely accurate. More compelling still is their desire that their other children not grow up amidst the media circus of those appeals. I do not concern myself here with whether his execution will make him a martyr among extremists or whether it will dissuade other would-be terrorists. I do not concern myself with whether his execution is satisfying to a constituency or whether Americans favor the penalty (they do). Something so grave ought be more responsible to morality than public opinion.

It comes, ultimately, to this: Does he deserve to die? Probably. Does anyone possess the moral authority to kill him? No.

Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, newlyweds maimed in the bombing, admit in a public statement to the Boston Globe that “in [their] darkest moments and deepest sadness, [they] think of inflicting the same types of harm on him.” However, they continue, “We must overcome the impulse for vengeance.” Vengeance is exactly that: an act of darkness, sadness, and rage. There is no nobility in it; it produces nothing, brings back no one, and whether it provides closure is in serious doubt. This is not about his soul, but ours.

It is not about killing a single murderer, however unapologetic. It is about whether we want our government to continue a practice whose morality is more Babylonian than modern. The death penalty provides no opportunity for reform, obviously, and has never been demonstrated to deter crime. It is nothing more than very expensive revenge. Everywhere, the death penalty is retreating, as an ever-growing number of nations reject the death penalty in law or in practice. According to Amnesty International, those nations number 140. Excluding China, which is believed to carry out more executions than the rest of the world combined, and does so in secret, 607 people were known to have been executed worldwide in 2014, down from 778 in 2013.

That more than two-thirds of the world’s nations reject civilian executions signals increasing recognition that state-sanctioned peacetime killing is a barbarous act. I will not waste your time with platitudes about eyes for eyes and blindness. Instead, I will ask you to recognize that we cannot return savagery for savagery. I will ask you to envision a world in which taking the life of another human being is unimaginable. We do not yet live in that world, but governments should form the vanguard of responsible citizenship. We entrust them to lead, and to what end if not peace and humanity? If we are to achieve a world without murder, who better to lead us there than those entrusted with our collective will and power? When the government engages in cold-blood killing, this is a submission to our basest instincts, indistinguishable from mob rule. Government should be a forum for aspiration, a place where each of us comes together for the good of all of us. During the Cold War, it became fashionable to refer to America “leading the free world.” But American exceptionalism is at odds with the death penalty. We cannot lead in a meaningful sense unless we renounce vengeance as a tool and as a mindset. If the American ethos is about striving to be better, about ingenuity, why do we still resort to medieval violence and call it justice?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed terrible crimes, and he should be punished, locked away for the rest of his life with no hope of freedom, but not killed. We cannot allow our moral compass to become dislodged at the whim of every madman. They don’t deserve to hold that kind of power. The survivors of their madness deserve better than that.

Photo credit: John Hoey, Flickr Creative Commons


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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