Why the US Shouldn’t Execute the Boston Bomber

By Joe Young

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. Via wikimedia.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. Via wikimedia.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by his own admission is guilty of the Boston Bombings that took the lives of three people and injured hundreds more. These facts are not in doubt.

On May 15th, a jury concurred and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

Tsarnaev is a murderer and should never be allowed back into society. Whether he is executed or not, this will be true. But Tsarnaev is a criminal not a martyr. If USG executes him, they (we?) run the risk of making him the latter. The benefit of calling him a criminal is to demean his actions as selfish and worthless. No one holds vigils for or makes martyr posters of Al Capone or any lesser thug.

Is life in prison getting off easy? The Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado has a cell waiting for Tsarnaev. Residents include the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, the Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid, and the first World Trade Center Bomber, Ramzi Yousef to name a few. None will leave the facility alive. The inmates spend all but one hour a day in a concrete cell by themselves. The former warden, Robert Hood, claims a sentence in the supermax is “much worse than death.”

This discussion highlights how America is exceptional in a lot of ways, including our use of the death penalty. My claim here is not about this. I wouldn’t be writing a similar piece if this were Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy or other psycho killers. To be clear, I am not suggesting a general opposition to this form of punishment. Aside from one’s support or opposition to capital punishment, it is the wrong policy in this case.

After 9/11, Americans rightly or wrongly saw terrorism as an existential threat. Research suggests that the threat of terrorism might be overblown, as it might be ineffective especially to developed democracies like ours. Terrorism, like crime, has been a part of humanity since we created complex societies (probably before), and it will continue. Let’s not treat the people who perpetrate these acts as more than they are—criminals.

  1. Isn’t there a slight inconsistency of logic with the argument? In the US capital punishment is part of the criminal code. As the author notes, criminals are often executed by the state. The author does not make an argument against the death penalty as such. Instead, he argues that the death penalty is OK for criminals but not for terrorists –because terrorists should be simply treated as criminals. And this is where the logic collapses. If terrorists are simple criminals they should be subjected to the same treatment as any other criminal –including capital punishment. If the latter is problematic for political reasons (and I agree that this is likely the case), then we are judging them by a different standard that no longer makes them simple criminals. The author cannot have it both ways. It is one or the other. For this argument to stand the author has two avenues: either make a principled argument against capital punishment in all cases (including ‘simple’ criminals) in which case terrorists and criminals will be subjected to the same legal standard, or create a separate legal category for terrorists acknowledging the political nature of their crime and the political implications of their punishment. The author mixes these two options and ends up with an inconsistent outcome that is difficult to defend.

    1. Thanks for reading and for engaging. Your title is apt. I don’t see it as inconsistent to say that different punishments are relevant to different kinds of criminals. Life in prison is a death sentence in a way. We are just haggling over the timing.

  2. I admire the logic behind not making him a martyr but I consider more the many immigrants who brave the odds, the indignity to emigrate to the United States in search of the American dream. Many die, many sell all they own, some parents give all they have so one son or daughter can go to America. Tsarnaev got it all on a platter of gold and then turned against America. He is wasted space. He should die.

  3. I agree with The Contrarian. Your point is logically inconsistent. Tsarnaev is being treated as a criminal. On the risk of creating a martyr I agree that is a valid concern. However, isn’t it also a valid concern that by keeping him alive you run the risk of incentivizing terrorists to kidnap and threaten Americans in order to obtain his release, something that has happened in the past? It is also one distinct way in which terrorism is different from your standard domestic criminal behavior.

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