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The Moral Case For Snuffing Tsarnaev


Regarding the death sentence handed down to the murderer Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, my Federalist colleague Daniel Payne writes clearly and forcefully in opposition. He cites Catholic teaching to argue that Tsarnaev’s sentence is morally questionable, unjustified in light of the circumstances, and can’t truly satisfy our desire for retribution. I’m loath to differ with Daniel, as he could probably wear me down in a prolonged debate, yet differ I do.

It’s a narrow difference. Aside from being a fine writer, Daniel is a coreligionist of mine. Naturally, I accept the legitimacy of his moral argument. I’d even go so far as to admit my belief that there are virtually no circumstances in modern America where execution is strictly necessary. The practice is overused, and recent cases of exoneration through DNA evidence give me pause.

While Daniel and I agree on much about the larger issue, we come away with different conclusions in this particular case. This was the right decision. Tsarnaev’s execution is morally permissible, and it is also justifiable within the framework of that morality.

Tsarnaev Has Condemned His Own Life

Let us turn first to the moral argument, with my apologies to the Magisterium for the quick and dirty paraphrase.

We should dispatch right away the notion that the death penalty is itself violates the right to life, as some claim (Daniel avoids this error). The Catholic Church does not teach this, and has never taught it. The Church considers that the authority of the state is properly understood to derive from God. We know from Scripture that God intervenes on earth to punish the wicked-sometimes directly, sometimes by instructing men to act. A state can thus be considered an agent of God, administering His just punishments in this life. This has always included execution.

A criminal like Tsarnaev can actually be said to have committed moral suicide by his actions.

In the church’s view, a criminal like Tsarnaev can actually be said to have committed moral suicide by his actions. He has “dispossessed himself of the right to life,” to use Pope Pius XII’s formulation (emphasis mine). An execution is merely the state’s recognition of this.

Lumping the death penalty in with abortion, suicide, and euthanasia—which are true evils—is not a “consistent ethic of life.” It’s muddled-up modernist gobbledygook. In a secular humanist view, death is a “final evil” instead of a transition to eternal life and the perfect justice of God. For Catholics that’s a very recent idea, and not one I think will catch on.

Justifiable Uses of the Death Penalty

If the death penalty is morally permissible, then it becomes a question of whether its use is justified in Tsarnaev’s case. Daniel notes that the Catholic Church has settled upon certain aims of punishment, which may also justify execution. Let’s consider each in turn.

The sentence of death is not an incentive for future behavior; it is a consequence of Tsarnaev’s grave misdeeds.

Rehabilitation: One undersold benefit of a death sentence is that it forces a person to consider his own mortality. This may inspire contrition for sin and reconciliation with God. While Tsarnaev has evinced little to no remorse for his actions, we can hope he will develop along those lines before the end.

Daniel seems to say that the justification for executing Tsarnaev would somehow vanish if he were to truly become rehabilitated. He likewise contends that if Tsarnaev should never repent of his crime, the execution would fail to achieve its aim.

This is mistaken. Rehabilitation is one aim of punishment, but not the sole aim. The sentence of death is not an incentive for future behavior; it is a consequence of Tsarnaev’s grave misdeeds. Ideally, it will inspire genuine repentance. How Tsarnaev uses his time is up to him, but the state of his soul does not abrogate our responsibility to see justice done here on earth.

Retribution: In his piece, Daniel dismisses the prospect of meaningful retribution. “Who,” he asks, “holds the invoice for the murders he committed? To whom is payment being conveyed?” The answer is obvious: “payment” is the justice owed to his victims, and to society for his crime. Recall the Christian idea of the state as an agent of God’s justice on earth. Order and justice demand that guilt should be punished, commensurate with the offense, on earth as it is in Heaven.

It’s true that Tsarnaev’s death can’t bring back the dead, or make whole those who were maimed. However meager the comfort his victims will receive from it, according to our understanding of justice his demise is merited. Only God can dispense perfect justice. We, lacking His omnipotence, must do our best with the tools at hand.

However meager the comfort his victims will receive from it, according to our understanding of justice his demise is merited.

There is a potential pitfall here, and Daniel identifies it in his conclusion. We must resist the temptation to confuse retribution and revenge. Absent a moral framework, there’s little to distinguish between the two. At the end of the day, a man will be dead. That’s nothing to be happy about. When we yield to vindictiveness, we allow his evil acts to harm us.

Defense: On this point, I agree with Daniel that Tsarnaev no longer poses a threat. Escape is unlikely, and his violent tendencies seem limited to planting bombs next to unsuspecting children. If defense against Tsarnaev himself were the only consideration, I’d agree that a death sentence would not be justified. Of course, it’s not the only consideration. And Tsarnaev is not the only potential threat.

Deterrence: The deterrent effect of the death penalty is subject to ongoing debate. In the United States, executions are performed privately, without humiliating the condemned or causing him undue suffering. Decent of us, but it’s reasonable to conclude that this makes less of an impression than using anti-aircraft guns, like the North Koreans.

Complicating matters, Tsarnaev represents a different kind of threat: the homegrown Islamic terrorist. These aren’t rational people. Will executing Tsarnaev deter them? It might weed out the cowards, certainly. I think it unlikely to deter those like Tsarnaev, especially if they’ve adopted a strain of Islam that glorifies both wanton murder of civilians and martyrdom. This does not, however, invalidate the other justifications for executing him.

Dzhohkar Tsarnaev committed foul murder in an indiscriminate attack against the people of Boston. His radical motivations place him at odds with Western civilization itself. His crimes are also an affront to God, who is the source of justice and mercy. Perhaps God will have mercy on Tsarnaev, but we are under no obligation to do so. Considering the magnitude of his offense and seeming lack of remorse, I see no reason we should not exercise our option for retributive justice. Tsarnaev should be put to death.