Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Dies While America Cowers

Dzhokhar TsarnaevI am breaking form tonight by throwing an extra post in. I just have to say something about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev getting the death penalty. Regular readers know: I don’t believe in it. Not for Pol Pot. Not for Hitler. Not for anyone. I just don’t see the moral or practical argument for it. But there is more to it than my general philosophical opposition to the death penalty.

There really isn’t any doubt that if his brother, Tamerlan, had been captured alive, that Dzhokhar would not be put to death. This is all about a cultural rite. The society feels the need to have a public execution to solemnize the terrorist act. Tamerlan’s death on the street wasn’t good enough because it had no ritual value. I understand that symbols matters. But this strikes me as pathetic, especially since not one in a hundred people understand that this is what is going on.

In addition to this, it really bothers me that people think that the Boston Marathon bombing was some especially vile act. There are plenty of people who raped, tortured, and murdered many others who didn’t get the death penalty. As a matter of fact, if Tsarnaev had been tried at the state level, he would not have faced the death penalty. What kind of “justice” system do we have where someone’s fate depends upon which bureaucratic structure tries you? But I know what the death penalty apologists respond with. They will say something to the effect that it doesn’t matter about justice in those other cases, we have a chance for justice in this case. That is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t need to be countered. But let me just say that random acts of “justice” is an injustice.

I suppose what really bugs me is that most people will cheer this decision. And that means that collectively, we are just as morally bankrupt as the Tsarnaev brothers were. I understand, we think we have justice on our side. But no one has suggested that the Tsarnaev brothers were psychopaths; they too thought they had justice on their side. They thought they were paying America back for something or other. People always have reasons for doing things. And they always justify what they do — most especially when they murder.

Over at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain noted, “US Attorney Carmen M Ortiz said in her statement today, the execution of Dzhokhar will send a message that ‘we are not intimidated.'” Really?! Is that the message that it sends? The implication is that it sends that message to the rest of the world. But I don’t think the rest of the world really cares. What Ortiz didn’t mean, but which is correct, is that it sends a message to the American people that “we are not intimidated.” And it is necessary to send that message because we are intimidated. It takes almost nothing to cause us to cower in fear. That’s why spending almost as much money on our military as the rest of the world combined is still not enough for us. We are so afraid that we jump when a young man flips off a security camera.

This is a sad day — not especially for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — but for us.

Update (15 May 2015 11:57 pm)

If Charlie Pierce had managed to publish his end of the weekend post earlier, I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this. He said pretty much what I said. This sums it up:

So the system got what it was aiming for all along. Some day, maybe a decade from now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be killed by the federal government. And Eric Rudolph will still be alive.
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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

12 thoughts on “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Dies While America Cowers

  1. There’s a website, “Honest Movie Trailers,” I’m sure you’ve seen it.

    If there was an Honest Movie Trailer about this case, it’d go something like this:

    “There’s a threat — a threat that lurks everywhere and nowhere. A threat that cannot be stopped; it can only be resisted. It’s a threat to your personal supremacy and belief that if you Do Things Right, Bad Stuff Will Never Happen To You.

    Experience horror like you’ve never felt it before, as confused lunatics use readily-available consumer goods to attack the innocent. You’ll cry out in rage at this abominable crime, while ignoring how far more people are killed or maimed every day by American police, health-insurers, and corporate polluters.

    You’ll be thrilled to ignore, since you’re told to, that you’re more likely to be killed by someone with legal access to firearms, who desperately needs mental health services your favorite Tough On Terror politicians love to defund.

    You’ll cheer when evil is vanquished forever. And then you’ll forget how emotionally unsatisfying every film in the franchise has been when you eagerly buy tickets for the sequel, in which the exact same damn things happen.”

    What’s really strange about our collective cowardice is that we don’t seem to have a culture we’re protecting. There’s a very definite Scandinavian culture, for instance, which is why racists there loathe immigrants and stoke terrorist fears (while the worst terrorist in Scandinavian history was a right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-government madman.)

    Or don’t we? James Baldwin has a short book, “The Devil Finds Work,” about “The Exorcist.” In it, Baldwin pegs that film (and presciently imagines the popularity of mindless horror films today) as expressing, essentially, white privilege’s fear that some Mysterious, Inexplicable, Unhuman force will disrupt safe suburban security. Baldwin knows exactly what that fear is. And it hasn’t shit to do with ghosts or demonic ghoulies.

    Maybe that IS American culture. We don’t share religion or dialects, we don’t share any historical concept of ourselves, we don’t watch the same things, listen to the same music, enjoy the same pastimes. If there’s one thing you could point to and say it defines Americans, it’s our rabid striving to put ourselves above somebody — anybody — else. Even the lowest on our totem pole share that aspiration, and share the fear that somebody is going to screw up their plans.

    It’s crazy. I probably qualify by no rational definition as a well-balanced person, but even I know there’s no logic in gauging one’s self-esteem by who I’m Better Than. What good does that do anyone?

    I fell in love with Scandinavia a few years back. The notion that flaunting one’s material worth is considered socially unacceptable, I adored. The sense of a shared culture, I adored. As we’re seeing now, there’s a huge drawback to this. Yes, people with those values support social safety nets — as we did in our better days. But there’s also rigid conformity and xenophobia, as we’ve always had, even in our better days. Now that Scandinavia isn’t as lily-white as it used to be, the social safety net consensus is crumbling . . . just like it did here when minorities demanded equal rights.

    I probably could have left out half these paragraphs. But the Baldwin book on Scary Supernatural Others is well worth checking out! . . . ;)

    • The problem is that there are always people who will demagogue. Welfare was fine until it was defined as something “those people” got. These demagogues are the most dangerous people. And here’s the kicker: the Tsarnaev brothers were the result of demagogues too — just on the other “side.” (Although, in fairness, it seems that the older one would have been trouble regardless.)

      I just watched a video in which Sam Harris was criticizing Noam Chomsky for not caring about intention and making what I think is a trivial point about how intentions matter. Sure: someone who kills another by accident is not as culpable as someone who tortures another to death. But the truth is that Chomsky doesn’t ignore intention — he just doesn’t except the fairy tale that “we only try to kill the bad guys” whereas “they just kill everyone.” We have far greater power, so we can more easily “play fair.” But even still, we don’t.

      Watching the video, I was struck by what is really going on in Sam Harris and it really is pure racism. Just like slaveholders in the antebellum period, he puts forth the best intentions for “us” and the worst for “them.”

      It’s been amazing to watch what has happened since Charlie Hebdo where, without the slightest sense of irony, people want to crack down on offensive Muslim speech in the name of free expression. I saw a cartoonist recently mocking the argument of Glenn Greenwald and others about punching down and punching up. It isn’t noble to criticize the weak. My position is pretty simple, “Yeah, there are a lot of terrible Muslims out there. And I despise the terrorists. But my main focus is on where the real power is and where the body count is the largest. Also: because it is mostly my country.” The Sam Harris position is pretty much the opposite of that. Ultimately, his position gives the powerful more power and raises the body count.

      There are a lot of liberals who totally buy into Harris’ way of looking at this stuff. And I fully expect these people to make a slow or sudden change to conservatism. Because the truth is, when you are really afraid of the terrorists — as you note: despite the fact that it is such a small threat — everything else is subordinate. You might think that feeding the poor is important, but it will always be trumped by the need to assuage their fears.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I ordered it.

      • That “intention” BS was the same reason Hitchens went ape over “The Nation”‘s response to the 2001 attacks. Liberals like Chomsky were saying our bombing of an aspirin factory in the Sudan justified the terrorists! How awful!

        (1: It wasn’t an aspirin factory. It made real medicine real poor people needed. And Chomsky was making a point about state violence, not relating one crime to the other. 2: Nobody said anything justifies murder. If you try to understand the causes of cancer, you’re not automatically rooting for tumors.)

        I’ll be really evil, here. What were the 2001 terrorists attacking? What they saw as the symbol of global capitalism, the World Trade Center. The Pentagon, and (they intended) the White House. They weren’t blowing up wedding ceremonies in Wichita.

        Greg Palast pointed out that the World Trade Center wasn’t really a symbol of capitalism, but the best of American socialism. The building was owned by the NYC Port Authority. Many of the people who died were janitors and other service workers, quite a few of them Muslims. While the terrorists wanted to disrupt the American economy, they ended up (through empowering the right wing) enabling the worst of Wall Street and fucking over small-time Americans. Almost certainly not what they planned.

        I assume if bin Laden was alive today, and still an influential presence (he seems to have been ignored for years before we assassinated him) he’d be crowing about how targeted and effective his missions were, and how anyone who carped about collateral damage was helping the enemy.

        Recently, some local Somalis youths were busted trying to fly back to Somalia and join, I guess, the wrong side in a civil war there. It was a big story. Former Senator Norm Coleman (now a paid lobbyist for Saudi Arabia) wrote an editorial, “Minnesota: The Land Of 10,000 Terrorists.” (Coleman lost to Franken by a few hundred votes in a recount. This, people, is why you vote.)

        Now it seems — surprise! — that none of the youths would have attempted, egads, flying to their home country and taking sides in a civil war unless the FBI plant hadn’t goaded them into it. Their defense attorney is going for entrapment, but he’ll lose. All the FBI does is entrap people and they always get away with it. Has that agency ever caught an actual criminal?

        Sorry for the ranting. When I think about this stuff, I can’t help but remember the terrific Rockwell paintings you did a post on. Rockwell epitomized pure-dee white-bread American self-love, or so it seemed. Turns out that when some liberals thought the civil rights movement was going “too far, too fast,” Rockwell took a turd in their faces and stood on the side of the weak.

        It’s amazing. John Oliver is a YouTube sensation simply for doing what liberals used to do — take the side of the underdog. Can’t guys like Harris simply switch sides and go work for the American Enterprise Institute? Or do they need a resume of “I tried, I really tried, to make fellow liberals see Reason” first?

        Baldwin is the best.

        • “Rooting for Tumors” would be a great band name.

          I haven’t been much of a fan of Reza Aslan, but he was fantastic last week on The Daily Show. He pointed out that the Islamic State is a Muslim group. They say they’re are Muslims and we ought to believe them; people don’t tend to lie about that kind of thing. But he added, we also need to remember that almost every person they kill is a Muslim and almost every person fighting against them is a Muslim. It ain’t hard, but it seems to be impossible for many Americans to understand this.

          As I was reading about the Somali “terrorist” case, I was thinking, “Wasn’t that just another of those FBI created cases?” I was glad you got to that. The Intercept has been great covering that stuff. Hell, The Intercept has just been great — full stop. But to answer your question, I think the FBI is no longer able to catch any real criminals. Like the rest of law enforcement, they are vewy vewy afwaid. So they have to create fake crimes so they can arrest fake criminals. And given that the “criminals” are all Muslim and mostly mentally challenged, no one really cares. (Although I’m sure the stories are spread throughout the Muslim world. And that’s key because these prosecutions doubtless make us far less safe.)

          I’ve always gotten the impression that Sam Harris is a conservative. He is, for example, really into guns and said what I thought were some stupid things after Sandy Hook. But at least he isn’t a total idiot like Robert M Price. It’s weird though: most of the New Atheist movement is pretty liberal. But the biggest people in it are conservative. The “second tier” — people like PZ Myers and Rebecca Watson — are also liberal. It’s strange. Hey New Atheists: stop buying these jerks’ books!

          I think I mentioned in another comment about reading a Neil Postman book from 20+ years ago, and it could have been written today — nothing has changed except that it is more the way he discussed. The same thing is true of Baldwin, but his writing is so much further back. It’s all sad. It’s like we are all in Groundhog Day, except at least in the movie, he could change the trend of that day. We can’t even seem to do that.

          • In my dream world, I’d challenge Harris to a trap-shooting contest. I’m quite good at shooting stuff thrown into the air; I haven’t done it in decades, but I had a real knack for it. Being a macho gun man actually hurts in trap shooting; you have to regard the gun as a precise tool.

            The place we went to for shooting often had cops around. I’d beat them senseless at target aim, they had the macho man “Dirty Harry” notion of guns, wave it at something and fire.

            Boy, we were white trash. What we used for targets was usually junk we pulled from apartment dumpsters. Videotapes were my favorite, since if you shoot them just right, spools of tape go flying everywhere. Computer keyboards are good, too.

            If we descend into “Mad Max” world (or, a better version, Benjamin Percy’s deranged apocalyptic novel “The Dead Lands”), grab yourself a microwave oven’s backplate. You can’t shoot through those even with .45s at close range.

  2. @JMF – I thought you meant skeet. Yes, you were white trash!

    Thanks for the advice regarding the post-apocalyptic world. But I’m more like the boxtrolls: I’ll just hide.

    • I loved that movie, although I thought it a bit off that the human had to teach the box trolls anything. They seemed plenty smart to me. Great film, though.

      • I thought about that. But all peoples have things they can teach others. The boxtrolls have much to teach the humans. Check my discussion of it with regard to class tomorrow at 5:05 pm.

      • Here’s a bit you don’t know. In movies and TV, “silencers” make guns quiet. Impossible. Silencers reduce, a little, the noise of gunpowder being ignited to force out a bullet. They help reduce ear damage to hunters, although some hunters regard ear protection as wimpy.

        But you can’t make guns quiet. The big noise from guns isn’t gunpowder on fire. It’s the sonic boom of a bullet. It breaks the sound barrier, it’s going to make a huge “bang” no matter what.

        So there you go, white trash info!

        • Actually, I did know that. They are actually “suppressors,” but people seem to have given up using that term and accepted “silencers,” just as people now use “demand” when they mean “quantity demand” because experts and pedants got tired of trying. My knowledge of this is partly due to having a friend when I was young who was a Soldier of Fortune subscriber. But also, when I was a libertarian, I went through a period where I did a lot of shooting. I’m sure you know the type. A lot worse than white trash! (Although similar in many ways.)

          But I’m definitely picking you in my Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse league!

          • Aak, I have failed once again in passing on Precious Knowledge.

            You did a lot of shooting and didn’t get good at it? I’m surprised. I assumed most of shooting involved being Not A Gun Nut, and pretty much anyone who was terrified by guns and took them seriously could do it.

            Is “Soldier Of Fortune” still a magazine? I used to work night shifts at convenience stores, and my favorite day was when the magazines came in. They’d all come in on the same day. The want ads in “Soldier Of Fortune” were astonishing. Basically, ads for mercenaries. That French Foreign Legion-type stuff still existed in the 1990s, don’t know if it does now. Of course America uses more mercenaries today than it did back then, but I have no idea if Blackwater (whatever it’s called now) puts want ads in spooky magazines.

            That’s a good idea for a post, come to think of it. Might involve delving into creepy gun culture again though, which I doubt you’d want to do and I doubt I’d know how to do.

  3. @JMF – I had to check for myself when I wrote the original comment, because I kept thinking the name of the magazine was “Agents of Fortune,” which is, of course, a Blue Öyster Cult album — also a favorite of the same friend. (Mine too, but only later.) Anyway: yes, the damned thing is still being produced. By the way, that friend was really conservative and I was a (very) outspoken socialist. Kind of a Ramones dynamic.

    I wasn’t exactly bad. But I never took it seriously. It was a philosophical thing. And the truth is that I hate loud noises. I’m more an archery kind of guy — with 20 lb bows! Regardless, you can’t tell this by my writing, but I’m a total klutz.

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