Upon the recent announcement that Dzhohkar Tsarnaev received the death penalty for his crimes in Boston, we were treated to a great many opinions that what would happen to this 21-year-old man was good, and justice: he had killed people, so now he will be killed. “What a relief,” everyone seemed to say. “Now the score will finally be settled.”
I confess to being baffled by this line of argument, chiefly because it seems to have no grasp on the workings of either scores or settling. To settle the score between Tsarnaev and the public—to put everyone back at square one—is not a matter of killing the murderer but raising his three victims from their graves.
But we are unequipped to raise our loved ones from the dead, and so—confused, angry, hurt, desiring even a modicum of justice in an almost-comically unfair world—we opt for the death penalty, and we are ostensibly glad for it, because we feel we must do something and because feeling glad is better than feeling helpless.
Tsarnaev should not be put to death. There is no satisfactory reason to execute him, and I am not positive than anyone who supports executing him can articulate a coherent reason for doing so. This is not to say that supporters of the death penalty are arguing in bad faith, only that they are arguing with bad arguments.
There’s No Good Justification for Killing Tsarnaev
The Catholic Church, which for centuries has acknowledged the legitimacy of the death penalty, has over the years approximated a rather stringent set of criteria for why we might execute a human being, and it is worth studying these to determine what we are going to do. According to the church, capital punishment can be justified on the grounds of either retribution, rehabilitation of the criminal, defense against the criminal, or deterrence of future criminals.
It seems needless to point out that Tsarnaev’s execution will satisfy none of these obligations and that killing him would thus be a pointless endeavor. Rehabilitation in this case is all but a fruitless endeavor: Tsarnaev is unrepentant now and will almost certainly remain unrepentant in the years to come. Killing him while he is “unrehabilitated” would thus invalidate the very premise of the execution. (If it’s the threat of capital punishment that should cause Tsarnaev to “rehabilitate” sometime between now and the date of his execution, then the death penalty would be similarly meaningless: why execute someone for purposes of “rehabilitation” when it has already been achieved?)
Retribution is an equally nonsensical concept in this regard. Retribution comes from the Latin retribuere, “to pay back,” and it is just nonsensical to suggest that Tsarnaev can “pay back” anyone with his death. Who, precisely, holds the invoice for the murders he committed? To whom is his payment being conveyed?
Using the death penalty in self-defense in this case seems equally bizarre: Tsarnaev is a lot of things, but it is ridiculous to suggest he is a threat to anyone or anything other than his bedbugs at this point. Using lethal force against him while he was at large could have been justified; in prison, bound by the chains and the cells that will mark the rest of his life, claiming self-defense against this man is a non sequitur.
That leaves deterrence, and while there are some studies that purport to show that the death penalty does indeed deter future criminals, I find this to be a rather grisly recourse to take. “We’ll make an example out of you, boy,” hardly seems to be the stuff of civilized countries.
Killing Tsarnaev Just Seems an Act of Revenge
I am at a loss as to any other reasons one could give for killing this young man, other than simply out of spite: “He started it.” Some have suggested that, perversely, executing Tsarnaev is the humane thing to do. To clap him into prison without parole, it is argued, would doom him either to a brutal murder from one of his prisonmates or else a lifetime of beatings, rapes, and solitary confinement.
Perhaps this is true, though this seems a remarkably weak and ghastly justification: “We are unable to control our prisons, so, to make up for our own punitive incompetence, we must kill.” How are we to build a compassionate society on such shortsighted, savage logic? Might we be a little ashamed to turn to such barbarity when we are momentarily puzzled on how to properly run our penitentiaries?
There is no case to be made for killing Tsarnaev. Indeed, there was likely no case to be made for the other 1,408 inmates executed in the United States since 1976. The only reason we seem to have for executing another human being in cold blood is that doing so will make us feel a little bit better for a little while. It will briefly stem the tide of distress that is a daily facet of human existence.
Tsarnaev will surely appeal. His life will surely go on for a few more years and then, after a long wait, he will be led to a room, injected with chemicals, and there he will die. We will have brought back nobody from the dead, we will have effected no genuine retribution, we will have protected ourselves from a non-threat, and we will have rehabilitated nobody. All that we’ll have gained is a body, one to be quickly disposed of and forgotten. There will be no winners here; only losers and the dead.
“What a relief,” people will say. Why?