It was a horrendous attack. Two bombs left in backpacks near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon exploded on April 15, killing three people and injuring an astounding 264 others — many of whom, including children, lost limbs and suffered other life-altering wounds.
But should our emotional response to that act of terrorism blind us to the appropriateness of the criminal penalty to be sought? No.
The Justice Department filed papers Thursday in federal court in Boston saying that it intends to seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the pair suspected of planting the bombs. The filing cites Tsarnaev’s alleged use of a weapon of mass destruction and his “reckless disregard for human life,” as well as the premeditation of the act. The papers also mention Tsarnaev’s alleged betrayal of the country that granted him citizenship and his lack of remorse. U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. added that the decision to seek the death penalty was based on the “nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm.”
Given the magnitude of the crime, it is understandable that the victims — from the families of those killed and maimed, to the city of Boston, to, by extension, the nation — feel the urge for revenge. This page has long opposed the death penalty, yet we also found ourselves caught up in the emotions surrounding Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and supported his death sentence — a stance we have since regretted.
That tumbling to the emotion of the moment, though, points up one of the primary roles of the judicial system: to act as a buffer between victims’ justifiable thirst for vengeance and the greater good of society. In our view, it is not the rightful responsibility of the state to act as executioner of its own citizens, no matter how heinous the crime, no matter how infamous the criminal and no matter how loudly people may call for it. Instead, society should put aside its visceral notions of revenge with a thoughtful examination of the morality, cost and effectiveness of capital punishment.
Cases like this test our strength as a mature democracy, and as a people who believe in justice. That’s not to say convicted murderers and other perpetrators of egregious crimes shouldn’t face severe punishment. Life without parole is the correct response in these extreme cases. It punishes the criminal while protecting society from future acts of violence.
As a nation that believes in justice, we should drop our embrace of the death penalty as a relic of the barbaric past.