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.


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