Friday, May 15, 2015

Updated: The verdict

"After all the carnage and fear and terror that he has caused, the right decision is clear," a federal prosecutor, Steven Mellin, said in his closing argument. "The only sentence that will do justice in this case is a sentence of death."
- The New York Times, covering Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentence

Why. Why why why? Why should we demand death as payment for death?

I'm not upset because I think that Dzokhar Tsarnaev isn't an evil man. He is, unquestionably so. What he did was inhuman and unforgivable.

I'm upset because I don't believe that sticking a needle in his arm gives justice to the families of those lost in the Boston Marathon bombings, or to those who survived with permanent scars, any more than locking him in a deep hole where he won't see the sun again. What does his death really prove? Newly confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch believes this will bring closure to the families. Maybe. But I doubt it. I've studied war and conflict and death for many years, and I can tell you that death rarely brings true justice. Justice is about restoration, about making people whole. Death has only the power to destroy, never to restore.

UPDATE: I've learned (with a hat tip to Doug at The Weekly Sift, my blogging spirit animal) that at least one of the victims' families urged life imprisonment and an end to the case instead of a death penalty appeals process that could drag on for years. And only a third of Bostonians overall favored giving Tsarnaev the needle.

I'm frustrated because studies have shown, time and time again, that the death penalty does nothing to deter capital crimes. The criminal justice system moves too slowly to create a true association in our animal brains between the act and the punishment. So all his death will do is fulfill some equally animalistic societal need to take a life in payment for lives lost. And I like to think we've evolved past that need- clearly I'm wrong.

I'm scared because the modern method of execution, lethal injection, has too many problems to be reliable. And no matter what someone has done, they don't deserve to writhe in pain and gasp for air in their final moments. If we want to show that a democratic government is the only entity that can legitimately use violence and end lives, then we need to be better at it than that.

And I'm disappointed because, in fulfilling this need, we've very possibly given Tsarnaev exactly what he wanted- to commit atrocities in the name of a warped view of Islam, and then die a martyr. And given the abysmal state of our prison system, death might be giving him the easy way out.

The lead prosecutor in the case pointed out that Tsarnaev was beyond rehabilitation. Was he really? Maybe, after sitting in a cell for a couple of decades, he might have realized how futile his actions ultimately were- how wrong his younger self had been, how Boston's people only grew in strength in the wake of the tragedy and loss he foisted upon them. Who knows, he might have even turned others off the same path.

I'm not naive-- I know how astronomically unlikely that would be. But the point is, now we'll never know.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Europe's migration crisis has it caught between a rock and a hard place.

Or maybe between a...rogue wave and a hard place?

Yesterday, the European Union asked the UN Security Council to endorse an EU naval plan to board and sink vessels used in human trafficking across the Mediterranean, in order to cut off the flow of migrants from Libya and elsewhere. This year alone, tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to cross the sea from North Africa into Europe, fleeing violence and lawlessness in their home countries. Refugee centers in Greece, Spain, and beyond are struggling to bear the weight of the upsurge in new arrivals. The migrants, for their part, live in harsh, precarious accommodations, assuming they're lucky enough to even arrive.

Many are not.

Last year, 3,400 of these "boat people" never made it to the shores of southern Europe. This year's numbers are on track to be even larger.

Many of us think of the Mediterranean as a tranquil sea under fair skies. But our vision of resorts, pristine beaches, and warm, blue water is in stark contrast with the reality that many migrants face when crossing in inflatable dinghies or decrepit fishing boats, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs. Because the human traffickers running these vessels are out to make a profit, they pack way more people aboard than could ever be considered safe.

And when the boats start to go down, EU navy vessels may be nowhere in sight, consigning the passengers to a grisly fate.

In spite of the criticism that humanitarian organizations have heaped on EU governments for their response to the situation (which is their job, after all), I think European countries overall have done a fairly decent job dealing with a crisis not (entirely) of their making. Military personnel have taken valiant action to rescue those stranded at sea, and the EU is developing plans to equitably resettle those migrants who do arrive in Europe. (Check out those pictures, they're really something.)

But military action against trafficker's boats? I've got a couple major problems with that, even if we ignore the undoubtedly tricky international maritime law regarding destroying non-combatant vessels launched from other countries.

First, the notion that destroying the vessels will stop those fleeing from attempting the crossing is just wrong-- they're not out there on the water, packed like livestock at a factory farm onto an inflatable boat about as wide as my bedroom because they thought it would be fun to put-put up to Europe for the day. They're fleeing, because they literally cannot live in their home countries anymore. If you destroy those boats, people are still going to try and cross, and the traffickers will find other ways to float them. Like rafts. And then even more people are going to die. Search-and-destroy fixes nothing, it only makes people more desperate and exacerbates the already dire humanitarian situation.

Second, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that countries would use their armed forces to cut the lifeline of those fleeing violence and repression. EU politicians have framed the crisis as a security issue, and it is. But it should be one of human security rather than national security. To use the language of terrorism and drug trafficking in combating this problem unfairly criminalizes people who are, at the end of the day, trying to do one thing-- exercise their rights as human beings to enjoy a degree of safety, security, and dignity.

I understand the bind that the EU countries are in, here. They've got problems of their own, the economic situation in Southern Europe is perilous as it is, and they don't necessarily have a place for all those people to go.

But their situation is nowhere near as perilous as that of the migrants fleeing across the sea.

What's more, a military solution to the problem adds to the already troubling worldwide trend of using security forces to punish human rights defenders or those asserting their rights, silence dissent, and reinforce the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. The buzzwords have changed, decades ago it was containment of Communism, then it was the War on Drugs, and now it's national security and terrorism, but the objective- militarization- has remained the same. We need less of that, not more, and the developed world needs to lead by example. The time, money, and effort of a military operation would be better spent improving the conditions of the facilities that receive and process the migrants, or conducting peacebuilding work in the affected regions in order to try and stop this mounting crisis at its source. This is as true for Europe's maritime policy as it is for the situation on our border with Mexico.

We can only hope the UN can show a path to a better solution.


...brothers in more than name....

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

So what's the first social justice-related news story we're going to hear about today? Will it be:

a) a bit about a small town in Texas where Mexican American students get persecuted for wearing Mexican flags on their clothes, and everyone freaks out;

b) a story about a small town in Texas where white American students organize some weird American patriotic thing in response to Cinco de Mayo, and everyone freaks out, or;

c) a viral-ready BuzzFeed or Upworthy post meant to shame some bros at a state university for doing something that insults or cheapens Mexican culture in some way?

My money's on C, but I'm taking bets through the end of the work day.