The fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

I have a love/hate relationship with the death penalty. I have blogged about this point before. In its 1972 ruling Furman v Georgia, the US Supreme Court effectively banned all executions but reinstated them in 1977 with Gregg V Georgia. It might seem strange to say this, but the court was correct in both cases: in Furman, the question was about whether it’s right to execute someone, while in Gregg the question was about whether it’s consistent with the constitution.

And, to repeat my Politics of Death essay, yeah, it’s not wrong to execute certain criminals. Just like the fact that we simply don’t have to execute anyone. The arguments against the death penalty are much more compelling than the arguments for it. I honestly don’t know what message we’re trying to convey when we say that we want to execute a particular criminal.

It’s kind of like spanking an unruly child. A last resort and probably one that should be avoided as much as possible, but can we honestly say that we should never, under any circumstances, do it?

I’ll even admit it: there are some people throughout history who, in my opinion, deserved to be executed for their crimes. And I can even think of at last one person who was sentenced to death for their crimes, and I applauded the original sentencing despite it having been later overturned.

But I do believe that just because it’s legal for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for some criminals, the decision to hand it down should be a bit more stringent. I’ll never complain when a jury hands down life imprisonment instead of death, as has happened with some really horrible people.

So that’s why I have a lot to wrestle with now that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been found guilty on all 30 counts against him in the Boston Marathon bombing. It would be a very different story if his brother, Tamerlan, had survived to see his own trial. But the truth is, I don’t know if he should be executed.

It’s not uncommon that, when a defense attorney seeks to save his or her client from the death penalty that the prosecution is seeking (after a guilty verdict has been handed down), the argument about a that person’s childhood might come up. And, admittedly it’s a popular technique specifically because it works. At least some of the time.

As soon as we learned the name Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the fact that he was born in 1993, it was clear to me that he was named in honor of Dudayev, the leader of the Chechen separatists in their civil war with Russia. Dudayev could accurately be labeled a terrorist by most standards. So it certainly is an interesting observation.

But even beyond that speculation, the more interesting point is that Dzhokhar is a younger brother, who seems like he wanted to do just about anything to make his older brother happy. It’s an interesting dynamic between two brothers, and I, as a younger brother understand this from the same perspective as Dzhokhar. I see it in my two sons, too. It’s a similar dynamic that dictated the reluctance of David Kaczynski to reveal to authorities that he believed his brother was the Unabomber.

If you’re a younger brother, it’s common to want to seek the approval of your older brother, and it’s very easy to see how Dzhokhar might have done the horrible things he did, because Tamerlan wanted it so. And a lack of desire to speak up to his brother, only enabled it.

So yes, Dzhokhar was capable of making his own decisions and he made some pretty horrible ones. I just don’t know what the right punishment ought to be. Tamerlan, had he lived long enough to be convicted, would deserve the death penalty. Dzhokhar? I’m not so sure.

But then again, if we do decide we want to execute him, the question bears asking, why?

Just like everyone else we might want to put to death for their crimes.