Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the federal government will seek the death penalty for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It is perfectly human and natural to desire retribution in the face of an atrocity like the Boston Marathon bombing. The Boston bombers took one of the most iconic, most celebrated events in the city of Boston and turned it into something deadly and horrifying. Innocent lives were lost, hundreds of people were maimed, and a city was deeply scarred. We felt angry and betrayed – these suspects were granted asylum by the United States, attended our universities, lived in our communities. And they set out intentionally to harm as many innocent people as possible.
Yet, in the face of such horror, we simply cannot allow evil to beget more evil. The radical message of Christ is one of love, one of compassion. “Love your enemies,” Christ tells us. “Pray for those who persecute you.” The death penalty does not fit with Christ’s message of radical love and redemption. So while our very humanness is crying out for justice and retribution, Christ calls us to have mercy in the face of evil.
What amazes me in the midst of it all is that the majority of the people of Boston do not favor the death penalty in this case. The death penalty has been outlawed in Massachusetts since 1984; when asked specifically about the Marathon bombing, 57 percent of Bostonians replied that they favor life in prison for Tsarnaev, 33 percent favor the death penalty, and 10 percent are not sure. (Source: Boston Globe/University of NH Survey Center, September 18, 2013)
As fate would have it, my Morality class just finished a unit on the death penalty. We’ve been studying Sister Helen Prejean’s work against the death penalty, and in her landmark book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean presciently writes, “ Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons” (197).
This “inviolable dignity” stuff sounds wonderful on paper, and it is wonderful – when it doesn’t challenge us or make us uncomfortable. During the State of the Union address last Tuesday night, President Barack Obama spent a few moments sharing some good developments – foreign-policy advances, expanding education among the young, aiding countries that have been affected by natural disasters. The president explained that we do these things “because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation.”
But there is a large “if” attached to that statement that went unspoken on Tuesday night. If you are a human being who happens to be developing in the womb, you aren’t awarded inherent dignity and equality in the United States. If you are a private business owner with religious convictions that inform how you run your business, you may not be afforded equality under the law. And if you commit a heinous crime, one rife with hatred and betrayal, you will no longer possess inherent dignity and equality. Isn’t that what our laws really say? Can we truly, as a nation, say that we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being if our laws don’t say as much?
So what will it be? Will we be a people that demands dignity for each and every single human being, at every stage of life, at every age, regardless of circumstance? Or will we only uphold a person’s inherent dignity when it is easy for us?