Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston bomber should not be put to death

Earlier this week, Thomas McDonald wrote that he could see the possibility of a just decision to pursue the death penalty in the case of the surviving Boston bomber:
In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we need to consider other issues, however.

Is it possible he will ever get out? Given his age and our short memories, yes, it’s possible.

Is it possible he will be a danger to the public if he is imprisoned for life? Given his motives (radical religious fundamentalism acting in a global war against American citizens and interests), it seems quite obvious that he could be.

It’s too early to tell whether the death penalty will be pursued, and whether Catholics should support it if it is pursued. It’s still an open question for me, but I think as the story and case comes to light, Catholics should be able to learn what they can and make a prudential judgment about the support for, or rejection of, the application of the death penalty.

We do well to reject the death penalty whenever we can. Doing so promotes a wider culture of life and exercises the most powerful witness to God: mercy.

But there may be times when its application is in the good of society, if only to protect society in a way life in prison cannot. The Boston bombings may be one of those cases.

I appreciate the thoughtful tone of what McDonald writes here--this is not some kind of "death penalty cheerleading" which we have, sadly seen from some Catholics.  But even at the time that I read this post it was already seeming as though it might not be at all necessary to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the more information that comes out--though as always what the media tells us and what's really going on may end up varying rather widely in the end--the more it seems as though the possible justifications for a morally sound use of the death penalty are absent in this case.

Remember, here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty and the use of force to protect society from aggressors:
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.NT
Now, let's look at the situation we have here.

First, it cannot be said enough that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar committed crimes of unspeakable evil, and that their actions were clearly those of unjust aggressors whom the state has an absolute duty to stop.  That lethal force was used to stop Tamerlan who had not only a gun but (reportedly) explosives and who was clearly not planning to surrender peacefully was clearly a just thing to do.

Having said that, though, we have to consider that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was apparently actually unarmed at the time of his capture (which makes one wonder about why the poor homeowner's boat had to get so terribly shot up).  Had the police used lethal force in their capture of him without even attempting to ascertain that he was, in fact, unarmed, it would be objectively unjust (even if, on a subjective level, we can understand that emotions were running high and fears that the second Tsarnaev brother might not only be armed but wearing a suicide vest were pretty rampant for a while).  But should lethal force--that is, the death penalty--still be considered a morally valid option in his case?

The question is not, remember, whether Tsarnaev is guilty of gravely evil acts that left innocent people dead and more innocent people seriously wounded--he is.  It is also not a question of how much under his brother's control he was, how much he has cooperated with authorities (or whether he has, now that he has been read his rights, stopped answering questions for the time being), or even whether he and his brother did plan further attacks--at least, those questions are going to be very interesting to law enforcement, but they don't by themselves answer the key question for Catholics pondering the morality of the death penalty in this case.  And that question is this: is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, himself, so serious a continuing threat to human life and safety that society can only be justly protected if he is put to death?

If the younger Tsarnaev brother had been the one in charge of things, if he had been the one who might have active ties to terrorist sleeper cells, and if law enforcement officials could show that he did, indeed, present a continued threat to the lives and safety of innocent people by the mere fact that he continues to breathe and have a heartbeat even if he spends the rest of his life behind bars, we might be able to answer in the affirmative.  But every single thing that has been revealed so far has shown that the Tsarnaevs acted alone, that the older brother, Tamerlan, was the one with radical ties and suspicious travel, that even so there's no evidence that Tamerlan had an active relationship with a terror cell full of people who will continue to carry out his plots.  In other words, the Tsarnaevs were, in the words of Mark Shea's tongue-in-cheek headline, a couple of Chechen losers, not the shadowy masterminds pulling the strings of a vast network of would-be killers.

So executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can't really be argued from the standpoint of the necessity of public safety and protecting human lives, with leaves us with this part of the Catechism quote above: "If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

And it is almost impossible to see how--barring some sort of gross negligence on the part of those responsible for his eventual incarceration--nonlethal means would not be sufficient to protect America from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.   Provided, then, that there is no sudden twist in our information which proves that the younger Tsarnaev brother really was calling the shots at the head of some vast network of killers and will continue to occupy that position behind bars, which seems almost as unlikely as CNN reporters refraining from publishing wild speculation as fact, I am confident as a Catholic saying that the surviving Boston bomber should not be put to death.

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