Outside of war, there is only one justification for killing the enemy — an immediate and mortal threat.
Self-defence or defence of others.
Not for retribution. Not for vengeance, as in eye-for-an-eye Old Testament decree.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one half of the Boston Marathon bomber-brothers, is a threat to no one anymore and the option was there to make certain he would never be a menace to society in the future — a future spent entirely behind bars, in grim solitude, 23 hours a day of utter isolation at a “supermax” federal prison. (Such solitary confinement has come under legal challenge in the United States and has been increasingly reined in by various state jurisdictions.)
Instead, the 21-year-old was condemned to death by a Boston jury last week, execution by lethal injection.
It will be years — if ever — before the sentence is administered, with appeals after appeals guaranteed, in a state which hasn’t executed anybody since 1947.
America is a great nation, perhaps the greatest ever. But its stubborn cleaving to the death penalty is an ugly stain on every principle of enlightenment so passionately espoused and deeply cherished in U.S. history. It puts America in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and North Korea — among the 58 countries where the death penalty is still permitted. According to Amnesty International, 140 countries — including Canada — have abolished this most primitive form of “justice.”
Its persistence south of the border diminishes America immeasurably.
Its wielding as punishment against Tsarnaev prolongs the anguish caused by the April 15, 2013 attack against innocents at the finish line of the beloved Boston Marathon that killed three and seriously injured more than 240, including 17 people who lost at least one leg. Worst, but not most deadliest, terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
A fourth person, MIT police officer Sean Collier, was killed a few days later, during the massive manhunt that ensued, shot several times by Tsarnaev and his older sibling Tamerlan as they attempted to flee in a carjacked SUV. In the chaos of the subsequent gunfight with cops, Dzhokhar ran over Tamerlan, killing him.
Interestingly, the jury did not vote to give the death penalty based on the death of Officer Collier, but did for his role in killing Boston University student Lingzi Lu and 8-year-old Martin Richard. Both bled to death at the scene, bodies ripped apart by flying shrapnel when the two pressure-cooker bombs exploded, and linked directly to the device Tsarnaev placed outside a restaurant. He was not sentenced for the death of a third victim killed by the blast from the first bomb. But the jury found that death was the appropriate punishment for six of the 17 capital counts in which he’d been convicted.
Martin Richard’s remarkable parents, Bill and Denise Richard, had made it clear they did not want the death penalty for Tsarnaev. In an elegant statement published in the Boston Globe, they wrote: “We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring . . .
“The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.”
They did not speak about forgiveness or enter into any argument about the immorality of the death penalty.
But their view is shared by the majority of Massachusetts’ citizenry. Poll after poll has shown that the state’s residents overwhelmingly favoured life in prison for Tsarnaev, who was 19 when the crimes were convicted. The most recent pulse-taking, a month ago, found just 15 per cent of Boston residents wanted Tsarnaev executed, and only 19 per cent statewide, in sharp contrast to the 60 per cent of Americans who favoured execution according to a CBS News poll.
That speaks, I think, to the progressive nature of a city and state which wears its bears historical aversion to the death penalty proudly, still shamed by the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials that put at least people, mostly women, to death for sorcery, and the 1927 execution of Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
Some of the Boston Marathon bombings expressed satisfaction with the death-penalty verdict, which was unanimous and came after a mere 14 hours of deliberation.
“Happy is not the word I would use,” Karen Brassard, who suffered grievous leg injuries, told the New York Times afterwards. “There’s nothing happy about having to take somebody’s life. I’m satisfied, I’m grateful that they came to that conclusion, because for me I think it was the just conclusion.”
While many were shocked by the sentence, the outcome really was all but preordained. Jurors, in order to be selected for the trial panel, had to be “death qualified” — a hideous terms meaning they needed to be open to a death penalty. Those opposed to executions on principle could not serve. In that context, the jury did not reflect the mores of the general population in the region where the trial was held.
And the trial was held in Boston because then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — judicial right-hand man to President Barack Obama — refused a defence petition for a change of venue. From the very beginning, it was Holder’s decision to seek the death penalty, a palpably political strategy.
Massachusetts abolished the death penalty for state crimes in 1984. But Tsarnaev was prosecuted under federal laws. (Of 80 federal defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. since 1988, only three — including Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber — have actually been executed.)
As has been noted even by harsh critics of the sentence, it wasn’t the jury’s job to make policy. Theirs was a difficult job and they did it, rejecting every argument for mercy mounted by the defence, which even pulled out Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun whose work with death row prisoners was dramatized in the ’93 film Dead Man Walking. Prejean testified that she had met with Tsarnaev, that he’d expressed remorse and that she believed his sincerity.
I don’t care about remorse, real or feigned. I don’t care that Tsarnaev was under the malignant influence of his older brother. I don’t care that he was 19 and hailed from a dysfunctional, negligent family.
He was a colossally evil young man. I understand the visceral rage that resonates still from his contemptible acts.
But a death penalty isn’t, in the end, about him.
It’s about societies that kill killers, which do unto others — even the most irrefutably guilty, as was Tsarnaev — the very monstrosity they have committed. Deliberately, planned, with forethought: All the requirements of first-degree murder, onto which is larded righteousness.
No pain is alleviated. Nothing is undone. The dead can’t be breathed back to life nor limbs restored to the maimed.
It only consecrates cruelty. And there’s zero virtue in that.