Friday, May 15, 2015

The Death Penalty and Our Enemy

"Christ and the Adulteress"
Today as the jury in the Marathon Bombing Trial sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, many Catholics who oppose the death penalty lamented that we were becoming murderers "just like Tsarnaev." Such hyperbole is detrimental to the Catholic case against the use of the death penalty. Overplaying our hand on the death penalty ultimately undermines the Church's position. This is so because people have an innate understanding that a society has a right to protect itself from particular crimes. Since civilization began, society has recognized the unfortunate necessity of meting out the ultimate punishment for certain crimes. While the Catholic Church teaches that the circumstances that may require the imposition of the death penalty are practically non-existent in our present day society, it does not affirm that these circumstances will never exist again in the future. The state still possesses the authority to protect its citizens by imposing the death penalty, even if this authority--due to favorable circumstances--exists in a purely theoretical way and is never actually exercised. We should, as the Church teaches, work towards eliminating the death penalty.

Those who champion the abolition of the death penalty, and who wish to do so from a Catholic perspective, ought to resist hyperbolic and theologically weak arguments that tend to equivocate the execution of a criminal with the cold-blooded murder of the innocent. These types of arguments simply do not ring true to human experience and weaken the Church's position. Instead of arguing that the death penalty "makes us like them," we ought to show how mercy distinguishes us from them and is the better way.

During the past few months, I've been somewhat intrigued by the alternative punishment that could have been meted out to Tsarnaev. The prison where he would have been sentenced would have placed him in a tiny cell that would be furnished with a cement desk, an immovable cement stool, a cement bed, and a toilet with a sink attached. Twenty-three hours a day would be spent in that cell, quite possibly for the next 60 years or more. It would have been a life of complete isolation. In many ways, this punishment actually seems more severe than death. This punishment seems like Tsarnaev would be dead without the benefit of actually dying.

What Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother did was horrific. Reading accounts of what they inflicted upon their victims and their families fills us with righteous anger and with profound sorrow. I've also found that I've had the same feelings when I think of Dzhokhar. He was given the gift of life and opted to throw that life away by committing such a heinous series of acts. He is his own victim and his own perpetrator. Although he didn't die two years ago like his brother, he nonetheless took his own life. He threw away what could have been.

Tsarnaev deprived others of life. He deprived society of whatever good these people could have accomplished. In doing so, he forfeited his own right to live freely in that society. But, as I've reflected upon the potential punishments that could have been imposed upon him, I've come to think that neither is suitable. Both the death penalty and the total isolation and entombment of Tsarnaev would allow evil to have the last word. 

Should Tsarnaev be punished? Absolutely. Should he be deprived of liberty and luxury? Certainly. Should he spend the rest of his life securely behind bars? Yes. But, society should strive to find a way to make that lifelong punishment a time for Tsarnaev to contribute to society. I say this not just for his sake, but for the sake of all of us. Tsarnaev finds himself in this situation because he chose evil. That evil thrives upon ruin, death, and hopelessness. In opposing the death penalty, we would prevent evil from taking another life. What Tsarnaev contributed to the world was viciousness and destruction. Society has the opportunity to introduce mercy and hope. Whether he is capable of embracing that mercy is unknown, but we have the opportunity to extend it.  And, in extending it, we strike at the heart of evil.

While the world may not believe that evil or the demonic exist, we who are believers know that we have enemies who are not flesh and blood but are principalities and powers. In becoming complicit with evil, Tsarnaev became an instrument of death and destruction. To Satan, Tsarnaev was always expendable. I would spare Tsarnaev's life in order to deny Satan the pleasure of achieving another victory. 

Executing Tsarnaev doesn't make the state a murderer "just like Tsarnaev." To say so, I think, does a disservice to the Church's teaching. But, in showing mercy toward the guilty, society would show how vastly better we are than those who hate us.  They kill the innocent, but we show mercy even to the guilty. Satan hates mercy. That is reason enough for us to be merciful.

1 comment:

  1. Very thought-provoking. However, I can't help but think that Dzhokhar the other Islamic terrorists view their acts not as evil but as something of a devotion to their deity. While we see it as them throwing their lives away, they see it as putting God will above all worldly concerns in a perverse way that reminds me of when Abraham was asked to kill his son. They are coming from a totally different religious point of view.