Now that the world was shocked to learn that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty on all 30 counts, we enter the penalty phase where it is decided if we kill him. I’ve found it interesting that going into the trial, all the jurors were asked if they would be willing to vote to kill him should he be found guilty. That stuck out to me. I imagine everyone on the jury being a bunch of compliant people. I’m sure there are many reasons why I would never have been allowed on that jury, but certainly I could not have answered that question truthfully in the affirmative. No, just because the law says we can kill people in the name of justice doesn’t mean that I think that’s right.
The down side of an opinion like mine is that whether a defendant lives or dies would be left totally up to chance. Is there someone like me on the jury? Or is it filled with a bunch of people who simply do whatever the prosecutor wants — like the beaten dogs that they are? That is indeed a problem. But can anyone seriously say that our justice system is consistent? Who we kill and who we don’t is mostly just a matter of dumb luck.
But in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I have visions of Frankenstein with an angry mob with pitchforks and torches. I’m not saying that Tsarnaev isn’t guilty. I’m not saying that his crimes are not horrible. I just don’t see what killing him gets us. But I’m afraid that I’m extremely clear on what killing him gets those who are baying for blood. For them, Tsarnaev is no longer a convicted criminal; he is a symbol; he is a sacrifice that we use to wash away the blood of that terrible afternoon two years ago.
Of course, his death will not do that. All it will do is show yet again that the United States really isn’t a civilized country. Because let’s face it: Tsarnaev isn’t anywhere close to as awful a person as others who we have not put to death. We didn’t put Jeffrey Dahmer to death for example. Charlie Pierce noted a few other more obvious analogies, A Verdict in Boston: What the Trial Is Still About. Ted Kaczynski killed three and badly injured 23 others. Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, killed two and injured 111. Yet they are still alive. Could it have something to do with the fact that these men were captured long after their crimes? I suspect so.
And that raises an important question: can we meed out justice when crimes are still vivid. I remember after 9/11 when the country was so hot to go to war in Afghanistan and to pass the Patriot Act and to set up the Department of Homeland Security. At that time, all I could think was, “This is a huge mistake.” And I wasn’t alone. Others said the same thing. Of course, they were dismissed as un-American. And the fact that we are later shown to be right hardly matters. Right now, there are a lot of people who want to feel a sense of justice by seeing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev killed. I understand it. But it doesn’t have a thing to do with justice.