Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber, gets the death penalty.
According to eye witness accounts of his trial, he expresses no remorse, anymore than he did after the crime itself. He smelt the blood and heard the screams but casually went off to purchase a bottle of milk at a nearby shop and then tweeted “there is no love in this country”.
Later, in court, he cried at the sight of his aunt, but his tears, it seemed, were for her and not for those who had lost children or friends in the bombing. But before then, as he remembered the event itself, he had told Sister Helen Prejean who visited him in prison that “No one deserves to suffer like they did”.
Dzokhar Tsarnaev is 21, officially an adult but still a juvenile, a person not fully formed whose emotions are still in a state of flux and able to be shaped by others. At the same time, he seems old before his time. His face is set in the defiance of old age, as it is seen in the faces of those who have lived selfishly and refuse either regret or remorse. Is he in his right mind? Is he as much himself as he was perhaps ten years ago? What kind of a human being could he yet become if he was healed of his hatred? If we kill him we will never know.
Neither will we know what the murdered child and student would have become if they had lived. In all this unknowing, those who were tasked with administering justice wanted Tsarnaev to give them a sign which would help them to be merciful, but he remained impassive. In a society for whom retributive justice is a moral imperative, public opinion would have gone against them had they decided on mercy in any case, and Tsarnaev himself did not seem to want his life to be spared. So would it have been a harder punishment to allow him to live?
This begs a further question about what punishment is for. Is it simply to hand out retribution measure for measure, an eye for an eye? If so, what purpose does it serve? Towards what end does it lead? Where something serves an ultimate end, it has a future, a time ahead in which change might be effected in a killer’s mind and heart. The question also turns on the fact that punishment is not handed out simply because it will deter future criminals but because justice demands that criminals should be punished on behalf of their victims.
A quid pro quo approach to justice denies any possibility of a punishment leading towards some better end. Furthermore, it constrains the idea of justice itself within the narrow confines of a problem which can only be solved through payback. But payback is not really a solution for the victim, or for the wider community or for the perpetrator of the crime. Payback justice can only lead to a life-denying outcome for everyone, in other words to more death. It deprives all parties concerned of their humanity, whether that humanity is understood as life to be cut off or spared, or, in the case of criminal justice, the quality and fruit of a lifespan which has run its natural course.
How many victims of terrorism, who have had someone they love taken from them arbitrarily and violently, feel that their own humanity has been restored, even enriched, in the longer term by the fact of a life being taken for a life in the moment of the judgment handed down in court? Has this judgment healed the victim, or has it simply given them permission to carry on with their own retributive hating? In the case of the perpetrator, the death sentence will prevent further hate-driven activity, but it will not stem hatred. It will simply pass it on to someone else, or disseminate it in the wider group.
If the death penalty were to be commuted to life imprisonment, would it not offer Dzokhar Tsarnaev the chance to convert his hatred into something life giving and all the more valuable because of the change of mind and heart needed for life to be born out of the ashes of hatred? If we do not believe such a thing to be possible, have we not already forfeited something of our humanity?
The Christian message of salvation is one of mercy, the kind of mercy which pertains to God and which transforms minds and changes the way people live their lives. To deny mercy is to deny the possibility of the transformation of hatred and of another person changing as a result of this transformation. It also denies our own need for mercy, our need to be embraced by God. To feel the effect of mercy we have to own our need of it, first to God and then to those we have wronged who are also in need of mercy, each in their separate ways.