My first reaction to the Friday morning headlines that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been condemned to death by the Boston jury for his role in bombing the Boston Marathon was anger — an emotion I more or less put on hold many years ago and which very rarely surfaces. The second was sadness.
Anger was directed not at the jurors but at former Attorney General Eric Holder who had decided that this was a federal case and that the boy should die. Holder had had a reputation as an opponent to the death penalty, and President Obama had asked him for a report on the death penalty before leaving office. National opposition to the death penalty has been slowly rising throughout the country, largely in response to botched executions, the failure of various drugs to execute the prisoner in a civilized, swift and painless manner. Holder’s researchers had also reported that federal prosecutors more often recommended the death penalty for minorities. But it seems the humanitarian reasons for the death penalty were pushed aside for political reasons—to demonstrate that civilian courts can be just as tough as military courts, or to put it another way, to prove that the Obama administration is tough on terrorism.
But since when is having to prove one is tough evidence of either toughness or courage or maturity? Although the Boston Globe survey found that only 15 percent of Bostonians and 19 percent statewide favored the death penalty for Tsarnaev, 60 percent of Americans wanted to execute. Eighty-eight percent of all executions are carried out by China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the United States, which executes more persons than any other liberal democracy. Are we proud that we can be as brutal as China? What was Holder thinking? He certainly knew that a federal prison would remove Tsarnaev as a threat, but he went with that majority of Americans and the tabloids who wanted blood.
My sadness was for the jurors who felt the same way. Bill and Denise Richard, the couple whose 8-year-old son was killed by one of the bombs, made a public plea to the government to put aside the death penalty and imprison Tsarnaev instead. Sister Helen Prejean’s testimony based on her conversation with the prisoner did not sway. The jury selection process had been limited to death penalty supporters; but it was presumed that they would be open to the proposition that this particular 19-year-old boy need not die for justice to be done. Apparently they did not consider that the accused’s motives for killing Americans is in response to our practice of killing our enemies in the Middle East, including thousands of innocent bystanders, with bombs and drones.
The most expressed justification for the execution is that seeing the offender die brings peace and comfort to the families of the victims. I can understand why one would say that, but I doubt that it’s true. In other words, the feeling of revenge is not a virtue. The revenge theme is common in novels and films, but even there the characters find themselves deluded and diminished by their clinging to an obsession. Years ago, when I testified in a hearing in New Jersey against the death penalty, I met families of victims who had replaced the revenge appetite with forgiveness and compassion and found true peace.
This story is not over. The judicial process may take years. I pray that somewhere along the way, preferably soon, either the courts or the president will muster the courage to reduce the sentence to life in prison where even Tsarnaev might find repentance and even peace.