The Sanctity of Life

If a convicted murderer wants to die and the family of his victim wants him to live, should he be executed anyway?

That question joins an already crowded field of considerations about what to do with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber whose trial enters its “penalty phase” on Tuesday.  Tsarnaev was found guilty of all 30 counts against him; now, the same jury will decide whether to sentence him to death.

My own view is that execution would be a mistake, and that the case for life imprisonment has grown stronger by the day.

Before we go any further, however, both parts of my opening question must be qualified.

First, we don’t know for sure that Tsarnaev desires his own death, although we can be forgiven for having that impression.

During the fateful day—exactly two years ago today—in which Tsarnaev eluded authorities by hiding in a shrink-wrapped boat in Watertown, he took the time to write out a message for whoever happened to find him.  It read, in part, “I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven.”

“Shahid” is the Arabic word for “martyr.”

This may well have been bluster, and the defense will likely argue that he was not in the proper state of mind for his note to be taken seriously.  Maybe he’s actually terrified of death and just wanted to put up a tough front.

However, given the nature of his crimes and his family’s flirtations with jihadism—a movement defined by an eager willingness to enter the kingdom of heaven through violence—it’s reasonable to assume he means what he says, and that being killed by the state is a result that he welcomes.

That’s the first qualifier.  As for the second:  It’s not that the Richard family wants Tsarnaev’s life to be spared, as such.  They just want this whole terrible ordeal to end, and a life sentence is the only practical means of doing so.

Martin Richard was the eight-year-old boy who, with his parents and two siblings, was standing mere inches from the pressure cooker bomb Tsarnaev dropped on the sidewalk on Marathon Monday.  The resulting explosion killed Martin almost instantly and seriously wounded his mother, father and younger sister, Jane.  (Miraculously, their older brother, Henry, was unhurt.)

On Friday, the parents, Bill and Denise, issued an open letter on the front page of The Boston Globe, asking the Department of Justice to abandon its case for execution, writing that “the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives.”

“As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours,” the letter continued.  “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.”

That the Richard clan has taken this public stance is compelling for at least two reasons.  First, as the family most deeply and directly affected by the actions of the man on trial (as opposed to those of his brother), they wield absolute moral authority on what constitutes justice in this case.

And second:  Up until now, the fact and details of Martin Richard’s murder have served as the prosecution’s strongest argument in favor of putting Tsarnaev to death.  (What could possibly be more irredeemable than deliberately killing a child?)  For Martin’s survivors to publicly oppose it puts the government in a slightly awkward position.  How can prosecutors continue to press their case in the knowledge that it’s only inflicting further torment upon those whom they wish to protect?

To be sure, the Richards were not Tsarnaev’s only victims, and they certainly don’t speak for all of them (nor do they presume to).

Further, it is an unavoidable fact of our judicial system that criminal trials are not, strictly speaking, about the victims.  Heinous crimes are committed not just against individuals, but against civilized society as a whole, and punishments should be handed down accordingly.  This is especially true with respect to the Boston bombing, which was purposefully an assault against the entire American culture.

However, this doesn’t mean Bill and Denise Richard don’t have a point.  Throwing their plea together with all the other arguments against capital punishment—in general and in this particular instance—the case for keeping Tsarnaev alive becomes almost overwhelming.

To begin with, legal experts have affirmed that the concern about a prolonged appeals process is 100 percent merited.  Should the jury choose death, it would likely take many years—and God knows how many millions of dollars—before the execution would actually occur.  Timothy McVeigh, the most infamous recent federal inmate, was killed four years after being convicted for the bombing in Oklahoma City.  However, factoring in all federal and state-level offenders, the average waiting time on death row is nearly a decade and a half.

Who’s looking forward to that?

Then again, nobody ever said justice comes swiftly.  The bigger, deeper question is whether capital punishment would be justice at all.

If the assumption is that Tsarnaev committed the worst of all crimes and deserves the worst of all punishments, the science is not settled that death by lethal injection is that punishment.  Not even close.

As The Boston Globe recently explained, a lifetime prison term for Tsarnaev would probably be served at ADX, a “supermax” prison outside Florence, Colorado.  There, he would spend 23 hours a day locked in an 87-square-foot cell with concrete furniture, never interact with other inmates, never have visitors, be force-fed if necessary, and possibly go years without seeing natural light or so much as touching another human being.

Last year, Amnesty International released a report saying the conditions at ADX “amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.”  A 2012 BBC story explained, “The design of the cells and the architecture of the prison conspire to render the inmates docile and drive them mad.”

No wonder the government doesn’t want Tsarnaev to end up there.  It might lead us to feel sorry for him.

It’s quite an achievement for America to have made life imprisonment a fate worse than death—a fact that, in the present debate, seems vaguely important.

You see, the trouble with death is that we know so little about it.  We know it involves the rotting of the body, but we have no idea how it affects the soul.  (If souls exist, that is.)

We don’t know, for instance, that every suicide bomber doesn’t gain entrance to paradise when he blows himself up in a crowd of civilians.  We don’t know that the good ascend to heaven while the wicked burn in hell.  We don’t know whether a fresh corpse is immediately reborn, and whether the resulting entity is an improvement over the previous one.

In short, we sentence people to death on the basis of a gamble we cannot possibly have any confidence about.

By contrast, when we send someone to prison, we know exactly what it will entail.  There’s not much guesswork involved.  We don’t need to use our imaginations about whether and how the assailant will be punished—although many of us seem to enjoy doing so.

With Tsarnaev, there is one consequence of his execution of which we can be confident:  It would succeed in making him a martyr in the eyes of other jihadists.  By being killed by the United States, he will become yet another icon in the insane war against Western civilization by radical Muslims.  Untold numbers of young Islamic extremists will very predictably be inspired to take up arms as a result, giving us that many more enemies to fend off in the future.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t snuff the little bastard anyway.  It just means we need to be aware of what the act would do, and decide whether it’s worth it.

Well:  Is it?

Remember:  When the U.S. government gets into the business of killing people, it is no longer only a matter of seeking justice for a terrible crime.  It’s about national values.  It’s about what it means to be Americans.

I understand the theory that a person can commit an act so evil that he forfeits his right to live.  I appreciate the notion that America values the lives of its citizens so highly that it is prepared to exact the most profound retribution against those who callously extinguish them.  I think there are some people who deserve to die and that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might be one such person.

However, I think that all of the above are superseded by the highest American value of all:  Charity.

The United States, as I understand it, is a country that treats people better than they deserve.  A country that doesn’t inflict cruel and unusual punishment, even when it probably should.  A country that believes in the sanctity of life so strongly that it grants it to everyone, including those who are practically begging for death.  A country that behaves with restraint when it could easily exert overwhelming force—just to prove that mercy is a nobler impulse than vengeance.

I am perfectly aware that, in practice, none of those things is actually true—at least, not too often.  We arrest and jail people who have committed no crime.  We torture prisoners with happy abandon.  And, of course, we wage wars that claim innumerable innocent lives, which we rationalize away at dizzying speeds.

Indeed, America has never succeeded in living up to its own ideals.  That’s what makes them ideals.

I just don’t see how executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would do any goddamn good.

We are supposedly in an ideological conflict against a creed that worships at the altar of death—people who believe that the killing of one of theirs should be met with the killing of one of ours.

I think we ought to try a little harder not to prove them right.

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