“We are Boston strong,” the world proclaimed just over two years ago. The phrase bounded through the pathways of the Internet, leaping from the lips of every politician in the United States as the news cycles endlessly looped the images of runners in bright Spandex and blood, the pieces of buildings crumbling down onto supporters whose cheers turned to screams. We were horrified that this had happened here, on Our Land, in Our Moment of everyday triumph. The stories of the lost crashed through the media—the missing limbs, the shrapnel they couldn’t escape, the dead child.
“We are Boston strong,” we said firmly as we held the survivors in support, heads nodding in conviction when the bombers were caught, the death of the older brother proudly pumped through the news in celebration of our police. We’ve got them, we congratulated ourselves, the quiet pain of having waited so long to avenge the attacks of September 11 lurking in the backs of our minds. This could be redressed; this one would stand trial. Justice would be served.
When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher assigned our final paper as an argumentative piece: we had to take on something that was not a pleasant topic and argue for or against it in a 15-20 page research paper, complete with full citations and drafts. One of my classmates took on the death penalty, arguing with gusto for its merits. We were in Indiana, our generation shaped by the execution of Timothy McVeigh in Terre Haute in 2001. We had grown up with the idea of evil and the necessity of stamping it out, draining its lifeblood by replacing it with calmly injected poison.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that this week as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was given the death penalty at least six times over for his part in the Boston Marathon bombing. Many celebrated the ruling as that long-awaited act of justice, the gift of knowing a killer would be no more threat in this world. But I surprised myself by hearing the news only with sorrow.
Please understand me, Reader; I have no standpoint from which to condemn supporters of the death penalty and I am not trying to do that. I have lost no one to a brutal and untimely death. My Bostonian friends weren’t anywhere near the site that day. I know that surviving these acts of murder and terror, either in first person or by seeing only the vacant place your loved one once occupied in your life, comes with a pain so deep I can’t begin to understand it. Even the fact that I do know what it is to want someone else dead for the pain they have caused me does not allow me to dictate what another should feel.
But I no longer know how to see justice in a life for a life—especially when the math is not as simple as that. Many death row inmates live for years while the system processes appeals and evidence. Even handing down the death penalty is becoming more and more rare as a combination of changing public opinion and deeper research into who is actually executed and how comes to dictate policy. America is a rarity among first world countries to even have the option; most of the nations that still allow the penalty are in Africa and the Middle East, areas from which America usually attempts mightily to distance herself. (John Oliver spoke rather clearly on this last year.) So what are we to do in this space of wanting closure that shades so closely toward vengeance?
I don’t know, but I think it’s a conversation of which we need to continue at least being aware. To take another’s life, even at the impersonal distance of a nation, scars. Amidst all the rest of the news that has happened this week—and there has been a lot—I think we as a society and the different subset of me/we as people of faith have to avoid the ease of simply moving past Tsarnaev’s sentence. A man who committed terrible crimes is being shipped to my home state to await the day when the United States government will impassively inject death into him. We should not forget that.
What are we doing to ourselves as a nation when our grief demands a justice that no longer listens to either mercy or humanity? I’m not at all arguing for Tsarnaev or any of the others on death row to be regarded as sane and lovely people whose actions were not terribly wrong, nor to debunk the idea that we as a society will be safer in some sense after a convict’s death. I’m only asking if we are willing to look at another and say that his or her death is something we should command. “Many that live deserve death,” Gandalf says in Tolkien’s Christian-inspired Fellowship of the Ring, “and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
Do not take revenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19, LEB)