That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty of 30 charges for his role in the Boston Marathon Bombings – which killed three and injured hundreds – surprised no one. I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when the bombings took place in the spring of 2013, and I’ll never forget watching the manhunt practically live over the Internet. The real question for Dzhokhar, whose older brother Tamerlan was killed by police, has always been whether or not he will receive the death penalty.
In a world with as much evil and violence as this one, I can certainly understand the appeal of the death penalty and can’t really fault someone for supporting it, particularly if they are closely connected to a murdered victim. Those family members and friends of victims from the marathon that day are important stakeholders in this trial, and they deserve our ongoing support.
I’m not sure, though, that we outsiders have to choose between advocacy on behalf of the victims and treating the perpetrator with dignity. Which is why it is my position that Dzhokhar, now all of 21 years old, should not be given the death penalty. Killing Dzhokhar off won’t bring any of his victims back, nor will it bring anyone any kind of psychological closure that they might hope for.
Political issues that involve taking a human life are usually complicated, but I still land on the side of finding ways to sustain life even if, like in this case, a person has done awful things and hurt many. But this isn’t an essay about why the death penalty is immoral. If you’re looking for that argument, I suggest Sister Helen Prejean’s 1994 book, Dead Man Walking. My task here is more specific: In a society that uses the death penalty, why should Dzhokhar be spared?
Let’s start with the utilitarian observation that Dzhokhar is no Timothy McVeigh or Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. When I say that, I mean that Dzhokhar damaged society less than these other extreme cases, but there’s also a glaring difference in age between those names and Dzhokhar. Dzhokhar could live another 80 years if we let him, and that’s a lot more time to develop a meaningful life.
A friend of mine makes her living building cases to keep death row inmates alive. As you can imagine, it’s grueling work. She tells me that so many of her clients, even the ones who are legitimately “guilty,” came out of unimaginable childhood situations. This doesn’t surprise me because, as they say in counseling contexts, wounded people wound. From all accounts of his before-Boston-bombing life, Dzhokhar was well-liked, good-looking, a high-school wrestler, a scholarship winner, a pickup basketball player. After his arrest, he seems to have been somewhat cooperative with investigators. He pled not guilty, but that was probably a legal ploy by his lawyer, Judy Clarke, as much as anything else.
If these details seem to contradict my friend’s claim, I should concede that I don’t know the depths of Dzhokhar’s baggage, but I do know he lived much of his life displaced, that is to say far away from home, if he ever even had a home in the first place. Dzhokhar’s family was scattered and in perpetual transition. While his parents lived in the United States for a while, they survived by taking a welfare subsidy. Dzhokhar’s mother is a radical, which seems to have contributed to his parents’ divorce in 2011, just a couple of years before the bombing. Dzhokhar’s older brother appears to have been quite a bit angrier than Dzhokhar was, but as a younger brother myself, I know how natural it can be for a younger brother to follow and try to please his older brother.
Interpreted wrongly, these bits of conjecture can be read as excuses. But to humanize Dzhokhar, to take him seriously and to see him as still holding value and worth, does not take away the fact that he is absolutely responsible for what he did. Dzhokhar took the lives of innocent people, and for that he deserves to sit in prison and ponder his actions for a long time.
I’m also interested, though, in the possibility of some corporate responsibility. When I look at the facts of Dzhokhar’s family and geography, it seems to me that here was a group of people desperately trying to make it in a Globalized world where it is so hard to make it. This is the reality of the society we’ve built, the result of decision after decision that reinforces the bad ideas that place doesn’t matter, that we have no limits. The more difficult life seems, the more bitter one can become. As one gets sadder and angrier, violence, which threads through so many aspects of our life, seems more like a good solution.
Wendell Berry makes a similar point in one of his Our Only World essays, and I also like to remember C.S. Lewis’s warning from Abolition of Man: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” I suspect that we’ve collectively done enough to remove the organs from young men like Dzhokhar that a proper response after his guilty verdict would be the grace to at least let him live.
All of this makes me think of Lee Boyd Malvo. Remember the younger of the 2002 pair of D.C. snipers? Malvo and Dzhokhar have a few striking similarities: their youth, their parental absence, their immigration, the role an older person played in their violence, and the way neither seems completely cold and hardened.
When Josh White of the Washington Post released an interview with Malvo in 2012, I listened with fascination. Incredibly, after years of imprisonment, here was a young man who seemed thoughtful, articulate, vulnerable, and so very alive. According to Malvo, “I’ve had to be my own psychologist, therapist, counselor, and priest. And I’ve basically spent the last seven years in recovery.” And, quite perceptively: “If you do not confront your pain, if you do not face your problems, they will find you and defeat you.” He spends his time in a variety of ways, including reading, writing poetry, and practicing yoga. He has also reached out by letter to apologize to a family member of a victim and to a victim who lived. It’s worth noting that that Dzhokhar has yet to express this kind of regret, but it took Malvo years to get there.
Malvo has claimed that his mentor in the D.C. shootings, John Muhammad – whom the state of Virginia executed in 2009 – sexually abused him. So why was Malvo so committed to Muhammad for that season of his life? Malvo, whose own parents all but abandoned him entirely, explained: “He gave me his time…Even though the consistency was madness, he was consistent…He was one of the only people who listened…It was that simple because no one else had the time for me.” In a generation of fatherlessness (both physically and emotionally), I don’t find Malvo’s psychology all that hard to believe.
Again the point here is not to glorify Malvo or even to exonerate him for what he did. As even Malvo said, “I was a monster.” However, we do share some responsibility for the Malvos of this world and who they turn out to be. I hope I have shown that the grace of sparing his life in particular seems to have been a wise decision. To the degree that I can, I look forward to watching the rest of Malvo’s journey, and I hope I get to say the same thing someday about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Chris Schumerth teaches and writes in South Carolina. His writing has appeared in Salon, Relevant Magazine, The Miami Herald, and in other places. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisSchumerth or read his blog at http://chrisschumerth.com/.