The Corner

I’m Against the Death Penalty, But I Don’t Really Care if Tsarnaev Fries

I am an opponent of the death penalty, and I have for a long time now been happy to argue why. But I fear that I am also something of a hypocrite on the matter, in that my heart and my head are often in two different places. Like many people, when I hear the news that a serial rapist/murderer has been killed, something in my gut says, “good!” And then I quickly check myself, and I remember why I’m against it, and I recall that I really don’t trust the state the make these sorts of decisions. It is always important to look to our better angels when our emotions run away with our brains.

Upon hearing the news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been found guilty on all thirty of the counts that were brought against him, however, I have had trouble rebounding from my initial, intuitive, instinct. On paper, I hope that he is not sentenced to death. But if he is, will I care that much? Meh.

Why is this? Well, I think it is in part because both the scale and the nature of his crime set it apart from most, and it is in part because one of my more visceral objections to capital punishment — the fear that the convicted may in fact be innocent — has effectively been removed from the equation. Were I to rank my criticisms of the death penalty in order of their severity, they would be 1) that an innocent person might be killed; 2) that there is something unavoidably ugly about procedural death, and that societies that choose to kill when they are not explicitly forced to do so will soon come to undervalue human life and 3) that, as history shows, it is inherently dangerous to invest the state with such awesome power. These lattermost two are crucial, clearly. But they are ultimately subjective value judgments. The federal government has executed precisely three people since 1963. Do I think that adding a particularly egregious name to that list will do much to damage the American conception of life? Not especially, no. Do I believe that there are some crimes that are so public that they deserve truly extraordinary measures? Perhaps, yes.

All in all, I’m still against it. Were I asked to pronounce on the question, I would certainly say “don’t do it.” But I’ve been interested to gauge my own reaction here. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did what he was accused of doing. He willfully blew up a peaceful event, and he killed as many people as he could. He murdered children. Indeed, per his own lawyer, he’s guilty as hell:

The defense disputes little about what happened and instead focused on why it happened. Lead defense attorney Judy Clarke all but conceded that Tsarnaev is guilty, and has focused instead on persuading jurors to spare him from the death penalty in the trial’s next phase.

I accept my own failings here. I accept that there’s no high principle involved, and that my heart is betraying my head. But if this one fries, I’m not sure how much I can care.


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