From Vengeance to Love

Reflections on the Death Sentence for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bomber:

One of the big events in the news recently was the conviction and sentencing to death of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the young man whose terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, killed three people and injured 260 others. The conviction is no surprise; the evidence is overwhelming that he and his brother, Tamarlan Tsarnaev (who was killed in a shootout with the police), committed the act. But the implementation of the death penalty, especially for a crime committed in a city and state that have historically been proudly against capital punishment, has led many people to reflect on an issue that has divided us for a very long time: Is the death penalty an effective way to bring about true justice?

I am against the death penalty, and have been for as long as I can remember. Besides my spiritual and compassionate and practical reasons, it has simply never made sense to me. I’ve never comprehended the logic of calling it “justice.” The assumption seems to be that giving a murderer the death penalty somehow makes things even, cancels everything out, or balances the scales-as if mathematically the murder was “1” and killing the murderer is “-1,” bringing the net suffering back to zero. But this doesn’t make sense to me at all, even mathematically: Killing the murderer actually brings the total to “2,” and so we’ve doubled the suffering-at least. I’m reminded of the famous saying attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

No, I think the real underlying motivation for the death penalty is simple vengeance. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that our brothers and sisters who are for the death penalty are especially bloodthirsty and vengeful people. On the contrary, I’ve known very kind people who are for it and very angry people who are against it. On the surface, people have many reasons for supporting it, and of course I understand the human reasons that people who have been terribly hurt are attracted to it.

What I’m saying is that in the Course’s view, we all believe in the death penalty in the deepest sense, and the motivation for all of us is vengeance: We all believe we are sinners who deserve the penalty of physical death as punishment for our sins. The Course, in fact, tells us that when we look out in the world and want to condemn the people we see (like Dzhokar Tsarnaev), we are secretly listening to the ego and condemning ourselves to the death penalty:

Remember, then, that whenever you look without and react unfavorably to what you see, you have judged yourself unworthy and have condemned yourself to death. The death penalty is the ego’s ultimate goal, for it fully believes that you are a criminal, as deserving of death as God knows you are deserving of life. (T-12.VII.13:1-2)

Given this, I think an important first step for us is to simply admit that our motivation for the death penalty is vengeance, or at least be open to the possibility that this is our motivation. Indeed, even some who advocate a life sentence instead of death for Tsarnaev are quite consciously motivated by vengeance: the “death is too quick and easy for scum like him” argument. Let’s face it: There’s something deep in us that says if you hurt me, I’m going to hurt you back-with interest. We shouldn’t condemn ourselves for having such feelings, but we would do well to admit that they are there. Only then, especially when we see that our motive is ultimately vengeance on ourselves-the old maxim that says “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” comes to mind-can we begin the work of transformation.

What, then, do I think Tsarnaev should have gotten? My honest answer is that I’m not sure what would have been best, but I have been reflecting on the issue. Among the options that were actual possibilities in his trial, I would have preferred life imprisonment in an environment where he was treated humanely and given the opportunity to genuinely reform. More broadly, I believe that our response to crime should be motivated not by lust for punishment but by the loving intention of protecting everyone involved and helping everyone involved. Protecting everyone involved, I think, does include humanely imprisoning people who are a danger to society and to themselves, for as long as that danger remains. Helping everyone involved includes everything from helping the victims heal to helping the perpetrators learn and grow to various forms of restorative justice.

I’ve been thinking about this last item-restorative justice-quite a bit lately. The idea behind restorative justice is that rather than punishing perpetrators, you give them an opportunity to repair the damage they’ve done and restore what they’ve taken from others and society, to the degree that this is possible. According to one online definition, restorative justice is “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.”

The early Course dictation actually has some positive references to this basic idea. For instance, Jesus suggests that it was because Helen had “hated and hurt” children in a past life that she was helping children in the present. He says that Helen and Louis’s maid, Rosie, had hurt them in a past life and so she was serving them in the present. The idea behind this is, however, is not punishment. Rather, the idea is that the way to atone for unloving actions in the past is to perform loving actions in the present (from a genuinely loving mindset) for the people you hurt or people similar to them. Lack of love is atoned for by real love. Done in the right way, as Jesus says Rosie was doing it, means doing it in a way that “sees service as a source of joy.”

In my heart of hearts, I’d love to see Tsarnaev given an opportunity to do something like this. I’m reminded of the famous story of Gandhi telling a Hindu man who had killed a Muslim boy to find an orphaned Muslim boy whose parents had been killed, and raise that boy as a Muslim. Instead of the man making up for a death by his death-the bad math I mentioned earlier-he would make up for a death by saving a life.

What, then, if Tsarnaev were given the opportunity to help his victims or people similar to them? Of course, he would have to be willing. (Reports vary on whether he is repentant for he did-some say he remains unrepentant, while others, like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, who had five meetings with him in person, say that he is genuinely sorry for his actions.) It would be up to him to accept the opportunity, but it seems to me that we have the obligation both to him and to ourselves to offer the opportunity.

Tsarnaev will now go through a long appeals process, so we still don’t really know what will ultimately happen in this situation. I just pray that we can move forward in a spirit of love for everyone concerned. Whatever is meant to happen, I’m convinced that genuine love offers the best opportunity for solutions to this and other difficult issues that face us. The Course says that “to the world, justice and vengeance are the same” (T-25.VIII.3:2). But I pray that we can move, step by step, away from this painful belief so that each of us “can be perfect witness to the power of love and justice,” perfect witness to the recognition that “it is impossible the Son of God could merit vengeance” (T-25.VIII.12:1).

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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