Mercy Is Ours to Give, if We Choose It

Imagine living forever. For people who watch those insipid vampire movies, the idea clearly has some purchase, a kind of cool cachet … but consider the reality of it. You live long enough to see every single person you love or even vaguely care about – wife, husband, children, brothers, sisters, friends, acquaintances, everyone – die before your eyes. Then you live long enough to make more friends, more family, only to watch all of them die. Then you do it again, and again, and again as an ocean of years pile up behind you until the stars burn out, and you are the last living thing on a dead planet beneath a barren sky.

Such would be my sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the accused, admitted and now convicted participant in the plot to bomb the Boston Marathon. Thanks to his actions and the actions of his brother, four people died and 264 others were injured. Many of them were almost literally cut in half – the prosthetics wings of several excellent Boston hospitals have been all too busy since that gruesome day on Boylston Street – and on Wednesday, the most unsurprising verdict in the history of jurisprudence was handed down: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was declared guilty on all thirty counts levied against him, seventeen of which carry a potential sentence of death, if the jury so decides during the upcoming penalty phase.

And there lies the rub.

I have traveled a long, hard distance within myself in considering my wishes for the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev … call it the soul version of the old saying, “Traveling 40 miles of bad road.” I knew Krystle Campbell, and have seen the unredacted photos of her end on that Boylston Street sidewalk. My best friend crossed the finish line scant seconds before the bombs went off; his wife and their two sons were caught between the explosions, and she had to flee with the boys into an un-shattered storefront before trying to find Dad in the mayhem. They did.

I hate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I hate what he did to all those people, to my friends, to my city, and to an event that was once the best day of the year in Boston. Explaining Marathon Day to someone who has not experienced it, who is not from the region, is like a frog trying to tell tadpole what life is like on dry land. It’s like trying to describe the taste of chocolate. It can’t be done, and it was wonderful for so long, the day we all looked forward to as the herald of Spring, until that fuzzy little failure and his brother scarred it for all time, killed four people, maimed hundreds more, and stole it from us. The Marathon will go on, of course, and the region will horde the course and cheer the runners up Heartbreak Hill, but it will never be the same.

I hate him, despise him, I seethe at the very mention of his name … and I hope, with all my heart, that the jury spares his life. Some of that sentiment comes from a vengeful corner of my soul, because I think death is an out. Timothy McVeigh went to his grave reading Invictus and believing himself to be a hero, and he did not deserve the privilege. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hopes to be a martyr, a hero in his own right, and he does not deserve the privilege, either. I can think of no greater insult, indignity or punishment more fitting for him than a long life.

In the end, however, my feelings do not and cannot matter. It comes down to this.

On April 4, Walter Scott was shot in the back from several yards away by police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina, for no discernable cause, and the only reason we know this is because Feidin Santana happened to be on his way to work, saw what was going down, chose to film it, and had the amazing courage to come forward full in the knowledge that exposing a flat-out police murder in the town he called home would put him in direct peril. As of this writing, Officer Slager has been fired, arrested, is being charged with murder, and is being held without bail. Santana considered deleting the video. He considered leaving town. He didn’t, and stood up, because killing is wrong.

That was a state-sponsored execution. The state armed, trained and put a uniform on Officer Slager. They gave him a badge, and invested him with authority. He cut Walter Scott down, and the only reason he faces punishment for that act is because a citizen filmed his actions and found the will to stand forth. The nation and the world are with one voice denouncing the actions of that officer, but the state which granted him power and a weapon bears as much responsibility for the death of Walter Scott as the officer himself.

Whether it be in a field captured by the shaky lens of a cell phone video or beneath the antiseptic straps of a table in a death chamber, the state does not have the moral right to kill an unarmed, defenseless person. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if spared, will live a long life in the federal penal system. It is to be hoped that he will find his humanity and experience the agony of regret he so richly deserves, but there is the very real chance that he will go the Charlie Manson route, make a home for himself in Hell, and never once face himself in a mirror.

It is worth the chance, for the possibility of a rending remorse coming to pass within him. There is also this old line that still fits: There is no sense in killing someone to prove that killing someone is wrong. More than that, and at bottom, showing him the mercy he did not himself summon says, for all time and in all directions, that we are better than him, and better than that.