On Killing Jahar Tsarnaev

Ever since Aug. 1, 2013, the cool, young face with its wild hair and the beginnings of a moustache and beard of Dahokhar Tsarnaev, now better known as Jahar, the Boston Bomber, has been staring at me from the cover of my Rolling Stone, as I tried to figure out what to do about him. Is there anything we—or I—can say or do about this weird and terrible life story? Depending on which and how many newspapers we read, we can bury ourselves with the corpses of innocent victims and the mug shots of their killers: ISIS captives lined up for decapitation or a bullet in the head, the graves of victims of Mexican drug lords, black victims of trigger-happy cops, families slaughtered by a suicidal parent, to say nothing of the countless dead people piled up over four seasons as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that have glued us to the TV screens on Sunday night and desensitized us to human suffering.

Why could some people somehow sympathize with this white college boy—from a family of Russian immigrants: parents, two older sisters and an older brother he admired—who on April 15, 2013, placed two pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street, killing 3 people, including a three-year-old boy, injuring 300 more with flying shrapnel, with many losing a leg or arm or eye. As Janet Reitman, says in “Jahar’s World,” the Rolling Stone classic essay, which has been reprinted in The Best American Magazine Writing, 2014, the carnage “conjured up images of Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv.”

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When investigators finally tracked down Jahar cowering in a boat parked in a Boston backyard he had scribbled a jihadist screed on its walls. He admitted he did not like killing innocent people, but, “the U. S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished…. We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all.” Then he added, “F*** America.”

So the move to understand this young man has continued. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Janet Napolitano reviewed The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen. It traces the roots of the Chechen family from Central Asia, back to Checknya, where Jahar was born, to Dagestan to Boston, where they were received as immigrants seeking asylum. But the family never got hold of the American Dream.

The older brother Tamerlan got a reputation as a boxer, but he dropped out of community college, delivered pizza and sold pot; the daughters dropped out of high school, married and disappeared. The parents split and went back to where they came from. But Jahar did well in high school, got a scholarship to University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and hung out with other students from Russia and was described as a “sweet kid whom everybody loves.” Napolitano rejects the last part of the book in which Gessen speculates about conspiracies casting Tamerlan as a F.B.I. double agent.

Meanwhile Jahar’s life spiraled down. He smoked and sold pot and eventually he confided with the student friends who had described him as a “golden person, a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone,” that the 9/11 attacks were justified because the U.S. is “dropping bombs all the time.” Gradually his embrace of Islam gave him a mission, an answer to his need to belong. He failed out of college and got an article on how to make a bomb.

Arrested and tried, he expressed no remorse. His lawyers made no attempt to prove him innocent, only to argue that he was led astray by his older brother, as they saved their legal and rhetorical ammunition to fight off the death penalty. The jury is “death qualified” in that anyone opposed to the death penalty was screened out. But, according to The New York Times (April 9), the Boston Globe and the majority of Bostonians do not want to kill him. The New York tabloids, however, are as bloodthirsty as ever. The Post’s columnist, Jonah Goldberg, called the Rolling Stone prizewinning article “asinine” and says Tsarnaev “has become something of a sex symbol for the morally stunted and chronically stupid.” We must execute him to “inform an entire society about what we take seriously.” The Daily News cartoonist depicts the execution platform spread out like a cross to which he will be strapped and killed. Caption: “You’ve made your bed.”

Catholic teaching would argue that this man should live because, whatever his sins, he is still a human being—just as the unborn child and the dying cancer patient is a human being. And whatever his nasty, despicable character now, we cannot say he is beyond redemption. Pope Francis has highlighted mercy as the virtue fundamental to both personal and civic morality. Those in prison ministry have experienced the moral transformation that the worst of men and women have been capable of. Furthermore, to kill always degrades the killer; we become what we say we despise. Kill this young man whom today we see as a “monster” and we join him in his debasement. To refuse to forgive him is a sin in itself that will eat away at our heart like a cancer, distorting our moral judgment and killing what remains of our power to love. Whether letting him live the rest of his life in prison will teach him to love, we do not know. But we have no right to draw the line on where God may send his grace. 

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Lawrence Lyons
3 years 6 months ago
Frankly, I have thought about this; - a lot. I am of two minds; one, that by putting him in prison for life will allow him to spread his cancerous ideas to others, who will be released at some time, to become at least as dangerous. If this character is to be imprisoned for life, he should be kept completely incommunicado - no books, radio, television or any conversation with anyone else. and the place should be special, also. The Portsmouth Naval Prison might be suitable, leaving him to the tender mercies of the U.S. Marines....
Frank Gibbons
3 years 6 months ago
Father Schroth, I'm with you on believing that capital punishment should never be used. However, I can't share your indignation that some people slam Rolling Stone. The Columbia School of Journalism recently eviscerated their reporting on the alleged rape at UVA. And Rolling Stone, with a large young audience, shamelessly raked in revenues by advertising for cigarettes and hard liquor.
Martin Eble
3 years 6 months ago
As I read of Dahokhar Tsarnaev's "cool, young face with its wild hair" and the "beginnings of a moustache and beard", a "white college boy" from a family of "Russian immigrants", who admitted "he did not like killing innocent people", a "golden person, a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone" , I realized I was reading notes for a future Hollywood script, perhaps "Andy Hardy Does Jihad". Of course, the movie would be "based on a true story", with the caution in small type that "some events have been modified for dramatization", with the truth bent at least a little, and probably a lot - Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" comes to mind. That explains the numerous factual errors. Although his older brother Tamerlan did drop out of community college, deliver pizza, and sell pot, the evidence is that on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, he killed two Jews - Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken, as well as their roommate Brendan Mess. Each victim's throat was slit with such great force as to be nearly decapitated. The "Russian immigrants" were Kyrgyzstanis, with father a Chechen and mother an Avar. An uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said he "had been concerned about his nephew being an extremist since 2009". Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother, was an Islamic radical and promoted 9/11 conspiracy theories. She discussed jihad during a 2011 phone call with Tamerlan that was taped by a Russian government agency, and intelligence officials also discovered text messages in which his mother discussed how Tamerlan was ready to die for Islam. Russian Federation intelligence contacted the US government in 2011 because of what the Russians perceived as the Tsarnaeva's extremist Islamic views. In late 2011, the CIA put both Tamerlan and Zubeidat in its Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database. Zubeidat was arrested in 2012 for shoplifting $1,624 worth of women's clothing and then fled the U.S. for Dagestan to avoid prosecution. She continues to make public statements against the United States. Ailina Tsarnaeva, sister of Dahokhar, was arrested and charged with aggravated harassment for making a bomb threat against the mother of her boyfriend's child. She has since gone into seclusion. Bella Tsarnaeva, another sister, was arrested in New Jersey on marijuana charges, and entered into a pretrial intervention program. Surveillance cameras showed Dahokhar placing a pressure cooker packed with explosives, ball bearings, and nails directly behind the first row watching the Boston Marathon - the row where the shorter children were standing so they could see, and almost next to little 8-year-old Martin William Richard. Jurors at the trial were brought to tears by the autopsy photos of his nail and ball-bearing riddled body. Catholic teaching is that life is a gift from God and should be treated as such. On the other hand, it is a settled matter of Catholic teaching that "The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offence." - St John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 25 March,1995 which, if the offense is enormous enough, permits the State to execute the criminal. Justice involves giving and obtaining from each his due, no more, no less. Our system of justice is intended and designed to be blind of all but the facts of guilt, innocence, and the extent of the disorder created by the offense. The process is isolated from the lynch mob, the polls, the ayatollah, and the well-intended religious pundit. Because we are not at law a Christian nation, God and his grace are not considerations in the justice system. Appellate courts routinely find error when religious texts such as the Bible are cited in sentencing. Through the sentencing process everything is aimed at justice, and justice alone. Once what is just has been determined, there is a process for mercy. Mercy, unlike justice, is not blind. It is personal, and as a result in most states and at the Federal level is given by the chief executive. Appeals to emotion, evidence of reform, statements by families of both the offender and offended, mental health experts, religious leaders of all kinds are all fair game. The extent of mercy granted, if any, is contingent upon first determining the demands of justice. Attempts to subvert the justice system to provide something other than a fair, impartial, unemotional, as accurate as possible assessment of what is due from a convicted criminal are attempts to create injustice. Injustice is an evil. One way of looking at this is that Dahokhar Tsarnaev became a citizen of the United States on September 11, 2012, and by the spring of 2013 he was plotting with his older brother to blow up as many Americans as he could. He is literally a traitorous child-murdering cop killer. If we can't take that seriously, we can't take anything seriously.

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