It speaks volumes about American culture in that we somehow are able to find comedic elements in inventing ways to be increasingly cruel and unusual to our fellow humans. Regardless of whether an individual is “deserving” of capital punishment, questions of ethical mores become increasingly irrelevant as public figures become ever-more careless in their encouragement of a form of a justice which has failed to prove itself useful in the thousands of years that humanity has employed it. From biblical times to present day, we have used capital punishment as a means to an end: removing negative elements from society and (whether expressly described or not) removing said elements from the genetic pool.
The worth is implied rather than empirical: removing dangerous or radical elements from society by ending its sentience. But what of the families of those whose loved ones have been summarily removed? No impact has ever been measured by any anthropological, historical, or scientific body that I am aware of relating to any individuals on either side of the equation, their psychological or physiological states, or even their post-hoc wellbeing.
Would summarily executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev immediately ameliorate the pain and ease the grief of those hundreds-upon-hundreds whose lives have been forever changed by his actions? Would the Tsarnaev family find closure in the knowledge that the sons that they raised now lie in the dirt, their memories spat upon writ-large by the unwavering conviction of a society hell-bent on punishment rather than understanding the chain of events that conspired to bring these two beings to commit acts that can only be described as “the most devastating of evils”?
I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. Capital punishment serves no other purpose here than to temporarily alleviate the suffering of the condemned and channel the rage and confusion of those in mourning into a single catalyzing event: the transition of a living being guilty of heinous crimes that fly directly in the face of what makes us human to that of a non-living entity. The sense of appropriation of another’s life, the notion of “taking” the life of a criminal as if it were tangible is tempting to individuals whose pain seems insurmountable. But we should understand this temptation is premised on the notion of a transaction: for each life taken, justice shall exact a toll upon them.
But to anyone who has ever lost someone and who has witnessed the execution of the convicted, the victory is Pyrrhic indeed; its sweetness becomes ashen and bitter in the mouth as time passes. Nothing can replace the lives lost, that gaping chasm in life where the deceased once dwelled being far too wide to fill with the grim satisfaction that those responsible for creating that gap are now themselves reduced to someone else’s emotional and spiritual gap–someone else’s pain. Satisfaction in the suffering of others–schadenfreude–is the among the basest of inhumane behavior. And we should be ashamed.
“Eye for an eye” has seemingly served us for thousands of years. But I wonder if we take too much satisfaction and amusement in the execution of what we perceive to be our duty to execute those whose transgressions exceed our threshold of humanity. Solitary confinement, as most of Western civilization employs it, is at-best a way to justify the tearing-down of a human psyche and expose a desperate and unrecognizable core. By-definition, it is torture through isolation, concealed as a punitive aciton. Others would instead offer the standard slurry of execution methods: firing squad, lethal injection, gas chamber, electric chair… others still would imagine even worse.
A commentator on a nightly pseudo-comedy show intimated that forcing a sex-change operation on Dzhokhar and having the post-operation convict raped by other inmates would be some form of “justice”. The only thing on display therein was a blatant disregard for the way that it related to transgendered and queer individuals, the need to balance the rights of the convicted and the rights of victims enshrined in the United States Constitution regarding a speedy trial and methods of cruel and unusual punishment discarded, and the obvious misogyny of a group of comedians who are likely so disconnected from reality that they no longer recognize it as such.
If this is the kind of justice that non-political public figures can envision as “just desserts” for citizens convicted of violent crimes, I am all-the-more relieved that we are still governed by due process and the rule of law. I can only imagine the grisly horrors hidden in the darkest nether-regions that would be unleashed upon many of us if we lived under mob-rule. For once in my life, I can honestly say that bureaucracy actually does us some good.