Once Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defense attorney wraps up her closing statement, the jury will need to decide whether the terrorist should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison. This is a thorny question, one that should compel civic-minded Americans to engage in serious soul-searching about the use of capital punishment in cases where a perpetrator’s guilt and lack of remorse are beyond question.
For that to happen, however, we will first need to overcome our own baser instincts.
It is here that I turn to a recent Boston Herald editorial penned by conservative pundit Howie Carr, which has few parallels in the realm of hyperbolic political invective. Its opening sentence says it all: “Can the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Fan Club please tell the truth for once about why they really oppose the death penalty for their bloodthirsty monster?” From there the op-ed proceeds to associate Tsarnaev with as many right-wing bugaboos as its author can trot out: Muslims, welfare leeches, drug dealers, Obama supporters, and illegal aliens are among the numerous polemical tropes that Carr dutifully summons. He glibly dismisses the fact that many of the Boston Marathon bombing survivors have come out against sentencing Tsarnaev to death, and he does it by accusing liberals who point this out of “playing the victim card.” The notion that Tsarnaev could actually be punished by spending the rest of his life in prison, without hope of parole, is erroneously classified as “mythical.” (More on that in a moment.) “If you like your tousle-haired terrorist, you can keep your tousle-haired terrorist,” Carr closes. “Let’s hope the jury isn’t buying their bully-bull-bull this time.”
The problem here isn’t that Carr supports the death penalty, but rather that he grossly distorts the perspective of those who oppose it. In the process, he goes a long way toward demonstrating why Americans struggle so mightily to have a serious debate on this issue.
We can start with his central thesis -- namely, the presumption that liberals secretly sympathize with Tsarnaev. Aside from taking a few choice quotes out of context, Carr does nothing to substantiate this allegation, for the simple reason that he has no evidence to back it up. While a handful of kooks have no doubt been “crying the buckets” for Tsarnaev, the vast majority of mainstream liberals are as horrified by his conduct as their conservative, moderate, and apolitical counterparts. When Carr insists otherwise, he not just trying to score easy political points (although that was almost certainly part of his goal); he also establishes a false dichotomy in an attempt to discredit the death-penalty debate as a whole. As he frames the issue, the only two options in the Tsarnaev case are to support his execution or to let him off easy by allowing him to get “three hots and a cot forever and a day.”
This is a serious mischaracterization of opponents of the death penalty, whose arguments tend to focus on the racial bias with which it is applies; the fact that it costs more money than it saves; the overwhelming evidence to suggest that innocent people have indeed been executed; and the fact that America is one of the few First World countries that still regularly kills its convicted criminals. Beneath all of this, there is the underlying philosophical issue surrounding the idea that any state should be allowed to take the lives of its own people -- a question that transcends any specific details about immediate cases under consideration.
None of this is meant to imply that Carr shouldn’t support the death penalty for Tsarnaev. The point here is not that Carr was wrong for wanting Tsarnaev to die for his heinous crimes, but rather that he contributed to a climate in which intelligent discussion on this subject becomes exceedingly difficult.
The fundamental problem is that, when it comes to sensitive questions like this, it is very easy for emotion to override reason. Because Tsarnaev’s crimes were particularly terrible, it is natural for many to seek vengeance against him. In so doing, the temptation arises to insist that anyone who doesn’t share this desire for retribution has only the most nefarious motives -- that they are, if not as evil as the bad guys themselves, at the very least useful idiots unwittingly coming to their aid. It is the toxic mentality that conservatives used when they declared that opponents of the Iraq War wanted the terrorists to win, or that critics of racial profiling hate police officers and love criminals. By allowing the nuances of these subjects to be swept away under waves of emotion, they oversimplify and warp what these debates are actually about.
The irony here is that life in America’s only federal supermax prison is hardly a picnic. If he is sentenced to spend his remaining days there, Tsarnaev will live in a small box that Seth Stevenson of Slate observed “seems specially designed to drive its inhabitants insane.” The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, CO (better known as ADX) was described last month by The New York Times as a “clean version of hell,” a place where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a 12-by-7 foot concrete cell with only a single four-inch window to remind them of the existence of an outside world. Regardless of whether one feels this punishment is more or less suitable for Tsarnaev than execution, it is sheer madness to claim that this fate would somehow coddle him or let him off the hook.
Although I’m personally opposed to capital punishment, I recognize that the jury in Boston has a responsibility to set aside their individual beliefs on this issue and render their decision based solely on the legal parameters established for them within the trial itself. Their responsibility right now is an unenviable one, and that of the society which must answer larger questions about how we treat our criminals is only slightly better. Just as I hope the jurors are able to deliberate in a calm and rational manner, so too does the American public need to approach issues like this with as much intelligent detachment as we can muster. The issues at stake are too serious to permit anything else.