Byrd: Don’t execute Tsarnaev


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The best tests of stringent moral principles, the type that simply cannot be compromised, are whether those principles stand up in the most morally black-and-white situations. Because if they don’t apply there, then why should they be used in a world full of gray?

An excellent example of this has recently been presented by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently announced that it would seek the death penalty in its case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 20-year-old Chechen-American who, along with his now deceased older brother, Tamerlan, are suspected to have carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. The bombings killed three and maimed or wounded approximately 264 others.

In his statement announcing the decision, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “After consideration of the relevant facts, the applicable regulations and the submissions made by the defendant’s counsel, I have determined that the United States will seek the death penalty in this matter. The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.”

Given the plethora of evidence incriminating Tsarnaev, it is extremely likely that the U.S. government will put him to death. This is a decision that, at its mildest, is both grossly immoral and a miscarriage of the American justice system.

Yes, Tsarnaev is an accused murderer whose actions allegedly resulted in the deaths of four people (the bombing victims and MIT police Officer Sean Collier, who was reportedly killed by the brothers as they tried to outrun authorities). What Tsarnaev is accused of doing is clearly evil, and anyone who argues against that is acting as an apologist for a man who may be a killer.

If I wanted to, I could point out how executing Tsarnaev is blatantly unfair, just by pointing to cases in which serial killers who murdered more people that Tsarnaev, such as Robert Hansen and Orville Lynn Majors, were given life sentences instead of death penalties. I could say that this proves that capital punishment can never be enforced with any semblance of equality and should therefore be abolished.

However, the questions about whether Tsarnaev is a terrible person or not, or whether his crimes were worse compared with people who were put to death, don’t actually matter when discussing the validity of capital punishment, both in this situation and its wider morality. Because the basic question that arises out of capital punishment isn’t “should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be executed?” or “should murderer X, Y, or Z be executed?” That’s a reductivist way of looking at it. The real question is, “Do we, as a society, have the right to deprive people of their lives?”

And the answer is no. We don’t.

Because, at the end of the day, it’s a fundamental moral principle that every human life is meaningful and to extinguish a life is simply wrong. That’s that.

If Tsarnaev and his brother placed a pressure-cooker bomb in that crowd on that April day, they showed a fundamental disregard for human life. The U.S. government has shown that same disregard, not just in seeking Tsarnaev’s death but also in the continued enforcement of the death penalty across the nation. It doesn’t matter that, should Tsarnaev be put to the death, that a legal statue backs it.

Wrong is wrong.

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