In a way, you could argue that sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death was a win-win-win.
Proponents of capital punishment can say that, by so condemning a seemingly irredeemable criminal, justice has finally been served.
Al Qaeda can claim victory by adding one more face to its Wall of Jihad.
And, of course, those against the death penalty can rest assured that—thanks to the wonders of the American appeals process—Tsarnaev will probably never be executed at all.
Done, done and done.
OK, I’m being slightly facetious. But only slightly, insofar as all three of those observations are (arguably) true, and we’re now going to have to deal with the consequences of the Boston jury’s decision to send the Marathon bomber to death row.
Indeed, how the following weeks, months and years of Tsarnaev’s life unfold will undoubtedly cause scores of bystanders to reevaluate their views on capital punishment in the context of how our system actually works.
Or doesn’t work.
The fact is that while nearly everyone has an opinion about whether the death penalty is a good idea, comparatively few of us—particularly in the northeast—have actually experienced, in any fashion, the legal decathlon that a formal death sentence unleashes.
The reason, of course, is that while states like Texas hand out lethal injection the way a clown hands out balloons, the U.S. Justice Department is a little more selective.
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, 74 people have been relegated to death row. (Tsarnaev makes it 75.) Thus far, only three have been executed. Of the rest, 10 have won reprieves, a few have died of natural causes and everyone else is patiently waiting their turn. Some three dozen have been in legal limbo for a decade or more.
It’s easy enough to defend “an eye for an eye” as a moral and legal standard, and to advocate exacting the “ultimate punishment” for the special few who deserve it.
But what happens when actually following through on this approach yields disappointing and unintended results—such as the punishment never being carried out?
We were informed—well in advance of the trial’s end—that had Tsarnaev’s life been spared, his legal case would have vaporized on contact and he would have spent 23 hours of each of his remaining days in the most forbidding, psychologically depraved prison environment ever built on American soil.
By opting to execute him instead—supposedly the “worst” punishment of all—we will skip all of that in favor of a more prolific, less restrictive day-to-day existence for the little puke—accompanied by hearings and appeals for God knows how many years—before he is finally strapped to a gurney, injected with various body-numbing chemicals and sent on his merry way. Or not.
Is this really anybody’s idea of the least-bad option for dealing with one of the most reprehensible people on Earth?
No, not really. What we truly desire—but are far too polite to say out loud—is a Jack Ruby. That is, for some crazed public avenger to pop out of nowhere and off the condemned man point blank, thereby saving society the hassle of the justice system’s more laborious machinations and getting right to the point.
The heck with due process. We want Tsarnaev dead and we want it now. Or at least, you know, less than 10 years from now.
To be sure, Tsarnaev will be no ordinary death row inmate. His case will not mysteriously disappear into the labyrinth of the Justice Department, never to be seen again. Lawyers and judges will pay him close attention, he being the first American terrorist sentenced to death since September 11, 2001.
Like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was killed a mere four years after his conviction, perhaps Tsarnaev will jump the line and be relieved of his respiratory capacities ahead of schedule. But not, in any case, before every last component of his crime and trial have been rehashed many times over, and in increasingly finer detail.
That, according to the experts, is about the best we can hope for: An exhaustive, drawn-out replay of everything that occurred between April 15, 2013 and last Friday, culminating—maybe—in a result that some 80 percent of Bostonians didn’t desire in the first place.
And for what? To prove the point that, in America, evil will not be treated lightly? I don’t know about you, but allowing what’s-his-name to continue arguing his case until halfway through the next administration doesn’t seem very heavy to me. Certainly not when compared to being locked in solitary confinement until he is driven so crazy that he begins gnawing off his own limbs, or becomes so bored that he bangs his head against the concrete wall and drowns in a pool of his own blood.
In practice, capital punishment has become little more than a symbol of how America feels about punishing bad guys. It’s our visceral reaction to acts of extreme barbarism, such as the Marathon attack, yet it is neither efficient nor particularly satisfying as it is actually carried out.
That a jury, knowing all of this, would nonetheless choose death over life suggests just how strong our aversion to religious extremism is—how we refuse to breathe the same air as those who would murder children in the name of holy war. How we will exhaust millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of court time—both of which we could easily avoid—simply to demonstrate to the world and ourselves that the right to life is revocable. That crimes against humanity warrant one’s removal from all other human beings.
For those who believe this, it must be profoundly frustrating to see the process move so glacially, and often not at all. Then again, if it’s really just about symbolism, does it really matter what happens to the poor devils once their sentences are handed down?
In Tsarnaev’s case, we have the consolation that every day his execution is delayed is another day in which he will not be seen as a martyr. Indeed, anyone who buys the theory that his death will inspire future jihad had better hope his appeals go on forever, as unpleasant as that would be.
What we have, in short, is a supposed act of justice that is destined to satisfy no one. Not those who want Tsarnaev six feet underground; not those who want him in solitary; and not those who want to raise him up as a hero for anti-Americanism everywhere.
Admittedly, the purpose of justice is not to make anybody happy. The purpose of justice is justice. We can, will and do argue about what constitutes justice in the first place. To yours truly—considering the world as it actually is, not as we would like it to be—capital punishment is neither satisfying nor just. It’s just plain dumb.