Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Death Penalty

Richard Martin, Krystie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collyer

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not use violence to resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Matthew 5:38-39

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Luke 17:5-6

It was probably inevitable that the jury would return a death penalty verdict in the Tsarnaev case. Those who were against the death penalty were not allowed to serve on the jury. The defense admitted that he was guilty of participating in the crime. And the crime itself was horrific in every sense of the word. Many people who are against the death penalty in general want to make an exception in this case.

We cannot discuss the death penalty without remembering the victims. Richard Martin, Krystie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collyer were all murdered. They were all innocent. They did nothing to incite the violence against them. And we could say the same of all those who were maimed. 

In the verses from the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, the first part of verse 39 is often translated as, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist an evildoer.” That translation makes it appear as if Jesus is calling for “passivism” as well as “pacifism.” The translation I used is probably closer to the original meaning of the text. Jesus is against revenge, but he is also against indifference or passivity. He is inviting his followers to oppose evil with creative non-violence.

It is not easy to resist evil without participating in the cycle of violence. Jesus did not oppose violence and  revenge because he thought that “evildoers” were not really evil. He believed that ultimately we could not establish peace by violence.

Luke records an exchange between Jesus and his disciples that is particularly instructive in the Tsarnaev case. When they ask him for help in increasing their faith, they are not talking about believing an abstract doctrine. He has been teaching them about forgiveness and they are in despair because forgiveness is so hard.

When it comes to the death penalty, we are not number one.

First place belongs to China. They lead the world in executions by at least an order of magnitude. The Chinese government is the undisputed world champion when it comes to the death penalty. They are joined on the podium by Iran and Iraq. In fourth place is Saudi Arabia and then comes the United States. We are number five on the list of most executions. Somalia is number six.

Somehow this seems like a list we don’t want to be on. I don’t see us taking our cues on criminal justice from China. 

If ISIS or ISIL were a real country, then they would also be ahead of us. Again, that says something about the company we keep. That list, all by itself, it a pretty good argument against the death penalty.

Zubediat Tsarnaeva, the mother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sent a text note to a friend proclaiming her hope that the United States will suffer for what we are doing. “They think that they are killing us and they celebrate this,” she wrote, “but we are the ones who will rejoice when Allah grants us the chance to behold them in the flames of an eternal and terrifying fire, an otherworldly flame.”

It should go without saying, but just for the record it is useful to remind ourselves that she does not speak for all Muslims. But if we go back to our list of death penalty nations, there is something deeply ironic in her text against the background of that list.

One of the arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it is a deterrent. By executing a murderer, we deter others from committing murder. By that logic, the death penalty is a form of societal self-defense. But criminologists overwhelmingly reject that argument. And the statistics back them up. The graph compares the murder rate in death penalty states with the murder rate in non-death penalty states.


In the short term at least, it feels good to inflict pain on someone who has hurt us. And if anyone deserves the death penalty then Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves it. Death penalty advocates call it justice. But when it comes to the death penalty, “justice” is just another name for revenge.

When we feel hurt, the desire for revenge is (almost) universal. Just ask Zubediat Tsarnaeva. 

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