The Case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: On Preventing and Perpetuating Death

Several days ago, a jury of twelve people sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Reactions to the sentence have varied. As one would expect, some are satisfied, even relieved, by the jury’s decision. Liz Norden, whose sons Paul and J. P. both lost legs in the explosions, said, “I feel justice for my family.” Peggy Fahey, who has lived in Boston all her life, was quoted as saying, “Oh, please, let him die. Enough is enough.” Their sentiments reflect those of the 60% of Americans who expressed their desire to see Tsarnaev receive the death penalty.

Still, many others have been deeply unsettled by the outcome of the trial. Against the prevailing national opinion, only 15% of Bostonians wanted to see a death sentence handed down. Among these were Bill and Denise Richard, whose eight-year-old son, Martin, was killed on Boylston Street two years ago. The Richards even went so far as to make an open plea to U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty for the man responsible for taking their son’s life.

With passions running high, many people will have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with those on opposing sides of the issue. The temptation will be to label those who disagree with one’s personal view as callous—either toward the victims of the bombing or toward the man who has now been consigned to death row. Tempting though it is to pass judgment on others, we would all do well to remember that the opinions of virtually everyone involved—whether in favor of the death penalty or opposed—ultimately derive from a deep-rooted belief that human life is precious and worth protecting.

The dividing question, of course, is how to respond when one person is responsible for taking the life of another. Catholic teaching acknowledges the right of society to protect itself from those who threaten the lives of the innocent, although John Paul II and others have noted that the death penalty has become unnecessary given modern society’s means of confining such dangerous persons. According to national polls, most people believe that terminating the life of such criminals is necessary for protecting the lives of the majority. At least that is the prevailing sentiment regarding the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. While I don’t doubt the integrity or good intentions of this majority, I do believe that the Christian faith challenges us to scrutinize this view (and all our views on such grave matters).

When we as a jury, a city, or a nation condemn a murderer to death, it is important to ask whether we do so because it truly serves the cause of justice and the common good or merely because it provides a momentary (albeit intensely needed) alleviation of emotional distress. A number of those who approved of Tsarnaev receiving the death penalty stated that this outcome gave them closure or lifted a burden from them, and undoubtedly that is true. When something or someone precious to us is taken away, we yearn intensely for vindication, for some recognition of the grave injustice that has been done. The death sentence is the primary way in which our legal system bestows that vindication. However, we might ask if that is the only possible way. For that matter, we might ask if it is even the most consoling.

In a trial like this one, people around the world hear that the defendant has received the death sentence and, in the days following, they hear the families of the victims talking about how they feel that justice has been done. But what about the following years? How long does the satisfaction last? I think that, if we were to talk to the families years after the trial, we would find that the pain remains. Vindicating though it might feel in the moment, sending yet another person to his death does not vanquish that pain. And in the meantime, another life has been lost.

Could there be a better way? We might consider how the Tsarnaev trial could have turned out differently. Imagine that the jury had found him guilty on all counts, but, rather than sentencing him to death, sentenced him to life in prison. Imagine that, rather than sending the 21-year-old Dzhokhar to the inhuman confines of Supermax prison, they sent him to a place where he would receive counseling and might be genuinely rehabilitated. Imagine further that, after a period of rehabilitation, Dzhokhar repented of his crimes, sought to reconcile with the victims and their families, and committed himself to working for the peaceful resolution of the conflict that motivated his acts of terrorism.

Yes, it’s possible—even likely—that, given this chance, Dzhokhar would remain as unrepentant as the jurors found him to be throughout his trial. Still, it seems odd to sentence a man to death, thereby diminishing his opportunity for repentance, because he does not seem repentant. This course of action is akin to throwing wax in a fire because it won’t hold its shape. Furthermore, even if there is no guarantee of repentance and rehabilitation, there are enough stories of redemption to make it worth trying.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting analogy for the story of salvation history than this one. All human beings stand before God as convicted sinners. Were we to be judged solely according to our actions and own merits, not one of us would be exonerated. And yet God, who alone is sinless and who has been wronged most of all—remember, God’s son was murdered, too—chose and chooses still to offer us the possibility of redemption.

What would happen if we all responded to sin the way that God does? Well, it would not put an end to violence and death. Some people would still choose to do what they ought not. But it might very well put an end to the cycle of violence and death, which really is the bigger problem. The violence and death that occurred two years ago in Boston resulted from two brothers’ decision to respond in kind to the violence they perceived the United States to have perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See the note Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote inside the boat where he was captured.) Now the U.S. government and (some of) its citizens have decided to respond in kind to the Tsarnaevs’ violent actions. If the recent history of terrorist attacks is any indicator, pursuing this course is likely to catalyze further violent responses by those who will hold up Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a martyr. Indeed, this is precisely the reason many Americans argued against the death penalty in this case.

If the violence is ever going to stop, people who have been wronged must seek the courage to choose forgiveness over vengeance. This is the way Jesus chose, and it is the way to which God calls all of us. It is a difficult path, to be sure. It requires the humility to bear wrongs and the patience to seek long-term healing over short-term vindication. In truth, the path to real vindication and the path to real healing are the same. It’s just that it is a longer road than many people are willing to walk.

This path is also difficult because it forces us to acknowledge our finitude. It is one of life’s incontrovertible facts that our lives are never completely within our control. All of us must confront this fact sooner or later. In the meantime, we can either refuse to acknowledge it, demanding that those who remind us of that fact (e.g., murderers) be disposed of. Or we can accept our finitude and trust that the love and mercy God demands of us really will lead to salvation in the end. Each of us struggles with this choice, but the Christian faith and human experience in general point to a single conclusion: suffering can’t be avoided, but it can be transformed.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made his fateful choice about how he would respond to the violence and suffering he encountered in the world. Now the members of his jury have done the same. Their choices pose a challenge to us all: Will I perpetuate the cycle of violence in my own life, or will I be the one to let the violence die with me so that life can go on?

This essay utilizes information from a key article in the New York Times.