The death penalty nicely dresses up some of our most wicked sins and faults and parades them around as justice.
By Kyle Magin
Applying the death penalty in the case of convicted 2013 Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev only really serves that wickedness while potentially breeding future wickedness. It serves no higher purpose.
Capital punishment mainly satisfies our ego—vanity’s co-conspirator. It shows that our society stands with the victim or victims of a given crime in the royal sense of the word by delivering the harshest possible punishment. It doesn’t deter those crimes—statistics show death penalty states frequently have higher murder rates than non-death penalty states—but, it says that we take them seriously in an emphatic way.
It indulges our lust for vengeance. At a great cost to us—Department of Justice statistics find defending a federal death penalty case costs $218,000-plus dollars, prosecuting one costs more than $365,000—we (there’s that royal we again) are able to slake our thirst for revenge over a crime that didn’t directly harm almost all of us.
For victims, those who wish for application of the death penalty get to discover if an eye for an eye helps soothe some of the pain of losing a limb or a loved one, or helps them close the book on a painful chapter of their life. We’ve decided that potential for an unknowable amount of satisfaction is worth the $620,000-plus in taxpayer funds that a federal death penalty trial can cost. In total, death penalty cases from arraignment to execution can cost $3 million, or more than three times what a life in prison costs taxpayers.
“Our government is potent, the omnipresent teacher,” said former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a decision regarding wiretapping. “For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”
Timothy McVeigh used that quote before he was sentenced to death for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It’s an admittedly terrible place to source a quote in opposition to the death penalty, but it’s true for this context. If our government deems it necessary to kill Tsarnaev, what sort of message are we sending? We’ll throw massive resources around for years in an effort to martyrize you and your act instead of letting you fade into the relative obscurity of a life behind bars. We’ll do this because justice demands your death, vengeance demands your death, consequences like cost or our nation’s failure in the pursuit of goals like mercy and rehabilitation be damned, consequences like your being made a hero to hundreds or thousands of wannabes be damned. We’ll do this because it is our way to answer violence with violence.
Here’s what putting Tsarnaev to death won’t do:
It won’t extricate our nation from a bunch of company we’d rather not keep. Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other bastions of freedom and forward-thought also perform executions. All of us—the royal we isn’t so comfortable with this group—continue to pursue capital punishment even though nearly every other civilized country in the world rejects it.
It won’t make us safer. In the 1940s, when U.S. governors started refusing to sign death warrants, they cited concerns over the fact that the penalty offered no more safety to the community at large than life in prison. It did add cost (California estimates death row inmates cost three times as much annually as those serving life in prison), it did add the potential for the loss of an innocent convict’s life (admittedly not a problem in Tsarnaev’s case), and it added a moral dilemma that some administrators deemed too great to justify continuing the practice. If anything, killing Tsarnaev puts a great-looking face on Jihadi recruitment poster and websites worldwide. It makes a fuss over him and, to many, validates his beliefs because he died for them. Hate groups and religious extremists fish a pretty fucked-up recruitment pond filled with uneducated, uncared for young men with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Killing Tsarnaev is like handing them funding for the next decade.
The death penalty won’t make us any better in this case. It will respond to senseless cruelty with senseless cruelty. It will cost us gobs of money. It will push aside mercy and forgiveness in the service of vengeance.
It will pants us, exposing us as a backwards society no more evolved than the gutter ideals Tsarnaev rigged his bomb in the service of.