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The chances that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will actually be put to death for his alleged role in last year’s bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured 260 are slim and none.
Tsarnaev, who faces 30 federal charges, is being tried in Massachusetts – a state where, according to at least one poll, only a third of the citizens support the death penalty. If he is convicted, it would take a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty. Like I said, slim and none.
But the announcement this past week that Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev has predictably rekindled the debate over one of the most divisive issues in America.
That ought to be a good thing. Issues like this deserve frequent, vigorous debate. But it seems the talking points have become as predictable as the debate itself.
The prosecutors cite the usual list of reasons: Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police, intended to kill and/or maim their victims. They planned the attack and were guilty, as prosecutors alleged in court, of a “heinous, cruel and depraved manner of committing the offense.”
On the other side, death penalty opponents note the obvious, that putting Tsarnaev to death will not bring back those who died, nor heal the wounds or restore the limbs of those injured.
Beyond that, they contend that it costs more to put an inmate to death than to keep him in prison for life; that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual” punishment; that it demonstrates a disrespect for life that lowers society to the level of the murderer; that justice should never be about revenge; and that it is “not who we are as a society.” And, in this case, that it will grant Tsarnaev’s wish to be a martyr, while if he is imprisoned for life, he will be forgotten.
These arguments resonate with many people – they would not have become standard talking points if they didn’t – but I don’t believe they withstand scrutiny. Here’s why:
First, the fact that the death penalty will not bring back the victim(s) is not the point. Putting Bernard Madoff in jail will not bring back the millions he stole from investors. Does that mean he should go free? Of course not. Punishment is not meant to undo a crime.
The “death-penalty-costs-more” argument is equally irrelevant. It would be vastly cheaper simply to revoke Tsarnaev’s citizenship and deport him. He wouldn’t be a threat to anyone in America any more, and think of all the money we’d save.
Indeed, the entire American justice system is vastly more expensive than it would be if we didn’t go to such lengths to grant a fair trial to accused criminals. The economic argument was dismissed long ago.
To call the death penalty “cruel and unusual” is to turn those terms on their heads. Cruel and unusual is what the killers did to their victims. In virtually all death penalty cases, atrocity is also part of the rationale, beyond premeditation. That refers to horrific, unspeakable suffering of victims, who in many cases endured psychological as well as physical trauma as they were killed.
Contrast that with the efforts government makes to kill murderers quickly and painlessly. In some cases they are rendered unconscious before they die so they feel no pain at all, unlike their victims. That is humane, not cruel.
Then there is the “respect for life” argument: What do we accomplish by taking another life, when one or more have already been taken? Why compound the tragedy?
I contend that the death penalty, carefully and judiciously applied in extreme cases like this, shows profound respect for life – the lives of victims and their families. It tells them, and society at large, that their lives mattered. It tells those who contemplate killing others that they will forfeit their own right to life if they willfully take that from another.
To say that death would make Tsarnaev a martyr for striking a blow for jihad against the Great Satan while he would be quickly forgotten if rots in prison is a political guess. Forgotten? You mean like Nelson Mandela?
Finally, the argument that justice should not be about revenge is half right. It should not be about individual revenge. That is why cases like this are not left to vigilante or mob justice. Not even the victims themselves or their families are allowed to take vengeance.
I suspect if Tsarnaev had been released to a Boston crowd right after he was caught, he would not have enjoyed the humane treatment; multiple defense lawyers, all at public expense; and other benefits of civilization. He would likely have been lynched.
We should give thanks that he will not.
Instead, the crime is a crime against society – against the state. And it is the state that has the right, and responsibility, to take vengeance, so mob rule does not prevail.
To contend otherwise is tantamount to saying we should not have sought to destroy al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, or spent the blood and treasure it took to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.
The death penalty should be rare. But in this case, it would not be cruel and unusual. It would be just and fair.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org