April 30, 2015
Let’s refuse to be drawn into vengeance where only another death balances the scale
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not repentant for the harm he has caused. He is not asking for mercy or forgiveness. He sees himself as a Muslim warrior fully justified in retaliating against America for thousands of innocent civilians who have suffered and died as collateral damage in a war against Islam.
To execute him would simply validate his self-image and his status among those we view as terrorists and whom he sees as holy warriors. Does it make sense to fulfill his ambition by making him a martyr? His behavior during the trial and the manifesto he wrote in the boat just prior to his capture underscore his continuing belief that he acted under some distorted vision of retribution.
Why should the state serve his perceived interests by executing him? It would be doing him a service. Not only would he be a hero but he would also be a martyr in the eyes of fanatics like himself. He and his brother were prepared to die as a consequence of the bombing. Perhaps he is ashamed that, unlike his brother, he was not martyred in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Is it up to us to fulfill that ambition?
I am opposed to capital punishment for several reasons. For the state to respond in kind to the vicious act of taking someone’s life is repugnant. We should be better than that, regardless of the provocation. By showing mercy, we refuse to engage at the level of violence set by the murderer. We bring the discussion to a higher moral plain, setting an example by refusing to be drawn into vengeance where only another death balances the scale – cruelty begets cruelty.
Even a mass murderer is worthy of the mercy he never displayed and cannot understand. For our own sake, we must demonstrate that we respond to a higher calling. Only victims can offer forgiveness, but the state can reject violence and, at the least, confound those who show no mercy and display no guilt for the evil acts they have done.
Life imprisonment is a more sensible and probably less expensive option. Tsarnaev would be denied his martyrdom and maybe over time he would come to see the evil that he and others are doing in the name of God. One can only hope that one day he will repent. If so, I expect there are some among his victims who would forgive him.
Most other nations have evolved beyond capital punishment, recognizing it is immoral, impractical, unfair, irreversible, and sometimes mistakenly applied. When it comes to capital punishment, we stand with countries that usually fail to profess our concern for civil rights and justice.
“Boston Strong” means more than being united and resilient in the face of horror. It means more than caring for the victims and their families. It means being better than those who would harm us. To me, it also means we march to a different drum, sing a more inspiring hymn, and respond to higher values than those who would do us harm.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.