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.”
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.