As I was weaving in and out of paying attention to “The Nightly Show” with Larry Wilmore, something caught my ear that switched my mood from mild amusement to deep frustration. More than one of the members of the panel, which had gathered to discuss whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be condemned to death, said with one breath that they were against the death penalty and that they were for executing Tsarnaev.
That Dzhokhar feels little or no remorse about his actions during the 2013 Boston Marathon is not in contention. That his actions brought about the death of three people—among them an eight-year-old boy— and the maiming of more than 200 people is simply a fact. The question remains, however, whether these facts justify his being put to death.
Some people that say they are usually against the death penalty have argued that Tsarnaev’s actions are so heinous that he deserves to be put to death. Ironically, this is often the principal argument of death penalty proponents, and it goes down a dangerous path. While Tsarnaev’s actions are clearly heinous, is the monster that rapes and murders an eight-year-old any less heinous? Or could it be, perhaps, that we are emotionally affected by the former more so than the latter, so we grant ourselves an emotional exception, but are ready to invalidate the views of another person for whom those emotions are reversed? How could someone tell the grieving mother of that eight-year-old child that she does not deserve her revenge, but somehow we do?
One might wonder, however, whether revenge is the right way to approach this question. The very idea that the state should put people to death because they killed others is a bit strange. Many would be appalled by revenge killings among private citizens, but the state seems to validate that by allowing the death penalty. Seeing another person die in no way brings closure. Neither revenge, nor anything else under the sun can possibly bring closure to someone who has lost a loved one. No amount of pain on thepart of Dzhokhar can ever compare to the pain that many of those affected by the Marathon Bombing have felt, are feeling, and will likely continue to feel. If Dzhokhar were drawn and quartered it would not make a difference.
A consistent stance against the death penalty cannot admit of an emotional exception. Wanting to see someone put to death because one is emotionally compromised in a particular trend is not just ethically dangerous, it is psychologically damaged. No matter how much we may want to see Dzhokar pay the ultimate price for his crimes, we must stick to our principles, no matter how much that might pain us.
But why should one be against the death penalty? The salient principle is that the state cannot take away what it does not give. It is not the state that gives someone his or her life and, therefore, the state cannot take it away. Other arguments, such as the fact that it costs more for the state to imprison someone for life than to execute them, or the fact that we may not, in many cases, be certain whether the person did it, which does not apply here, are ineffective. Our decision making regarding human life cannot be based on cost, and the question of certainty does not amount to a unilateral rejection of the death penalty, since there are cases where we may be certain, cases such as this one.
There is only one Physician who can heal the infirmities of our souls and bodies, and He asks us, though it is insanely hard, to love those who harm us, to love even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Our Lord says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt. 5:46) and prefaces it with, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:44-45) One of the most uncomfortable aspects of authentic Christianity is that it calls the believer to love always, even in the face of hatred and persecution. Our Lord asks us to love even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who showed no pity when placing a bomb next to a child. But we must show him pity.