This week marks the 119th running of the Boston Marathon. But it will be hard for anyone to forget the 117th.
Two years ago brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off bombs and led police on a wildly violent chase that resulted in four dead and 260 people injured, including 16 amputations. Tamerlan was killed in a shoot-out with law enforcement, and Dzhokhar survived to be convicted on all 30 counts in his trial, which ended earlier this month.
On April 21, the same jury that convicted him will begin hearing arguments in the penalty phase. The death penalty is on the table. I find it hard to imagine that the jury — faced with so many heart-wrenching stories of the results of this horrible act — won’t vote to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.
If that happens I won’t shed a tear for him. Yet, I hope that he is not executed.
It has been shown that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent to others, that it is more costly to implement than life in prison, that it has been disproportionately applied to people of color and to the mentally ill, and that innocent people have been executed.
But it is probably also true that in this case few people care. This is about “justice” or, more crudely, about retribution. Tsarnaev and his brother took four people’s lives literally and seriously harmed the lives of hundreds of people who survived with physical or emotional scars, not to mention the pain inflected on their relatives and friends. There is no argument here that the man does not deserve to be executed.
But as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” All advanced economies, except ours, have ended the death penalty. In fact, in Norway, the maximum sentence for any crime is 21 years. This even applies to Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in July 2011, most of them at a summer youth camp. The theory is that once a person attains early middle age, his chances of committing more violent crimes has almost vanished.
If all we want to accomplish is to remove the threat of more violence from an individual and keep societal costs as low as possible, then a lengthy but not lifelong prison stay is probably the answer.
The problem is that the response to heinous crime isn’t about reason; it’s about emotion. Tsarnaev has earned our hatred, so we’ll kill him. But that just backs up on ourselves.
I know I won’t help my case much by quoting Richard Nixon. But Nixon said something in his farewell speech that bears repeating: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
In that moment it seemed as if Nixon was acknowledging that he had brought all of his pain on himself; that responding to hatred with more hatred in return was just a cascade that ended in disaster. Think what you will about Richard Nixon — that was a moment in which he spoke the truth.
The Kennedy family, as it often has, touched the right chord when Ted Kennedy wrote to the court as it was about to sentence Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy. “My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion,” Ted Kennedy wrote in April 1969. “He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for taking another life.”
I wish we lived in a country as big as that. But in America today we live in a violent society with too many weapons that are too easily accessible. The answer to gun violence is not more guns. The answer to the threat of nuclear annihilation is not more bombs. And the answer to horrible crimes and vicious murder is not the only somewhat less barbaric ritual of state execution. Tsarnaev’s crimes were an offense to civil society. The answer is not to make our society less civil.