Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence is dangerous for making life in prison look merciful

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not die soon. He will die in prison, but that was true before a jury sentenced the 20-year-old Boston bomber to death; the options were death in the hands of the state, or death by the hand of the state. What a difference conjunctions can make.


Friday's sentencing was about more than determining the specifics of the young man's fate. The jury's unanimous decision is an ontological claim—an assertion that Tsarnaev is a certain type of being in the world, and that the tragedy he wrought on Boston is a certain category of event. Namely: The Worst.

When the sentencing stage of the trial began, I noted that arguments against the death penalty for its archaic barbarism, while correct, should not treat lifelong imprisonment without chance of parole as a merciful alternative. The capital trial put heavy focus on Tsarnaev's observable remorse, or lack thereof. Susan Zalkind suggests in The Daily Beast that the bomber's "dead eyes [and] blank stare may have cost him his life," leading the jury to judge him a monster beyond reproach, beneath humanity.

In terms of the jury's role as moral arbiter, the emphasis on Tsarnaev's seeming remorselessness makes sense. The sentencing trial was essentially an effort to determine for the legal and historical record whether the bomber be categorized a villain or a supervillain. But if remorse was in fact the deciding factor, the assumption that a death sentence is the worst condemnation should perhaps be reconsidered. Indeed, would a long and imprisoned life of genuine remorse be categorically better, more merciful, than a shortened, also imprisoned life unburdened by the pain of moral guilt?

Of course it's a question without answer in this case. Who among us can know the fear of awaiting execution? Or the potential anguish of having perpetrated a great horror? We can't—much to the chagrin of the court and the media—get inside Tsarnaev's head. But when we criticize capital punishment for its sui generis barbarism, we forget to point out other pernicious work done by its existence in the tacit elevation of rotting in prison as the humane option. It's yet another good reason to finally ban capital punishment, so we can't forget even for a second the brutality of life in prison. The threat of death problematically undermines the horror of life in a cage.

And the threat of death is as much part of the practicalities of capital punishment in this country as executions themselves. The average inmate executed in 2013 had been on death row for more than 15 years; Tsarnaev has years of appeals ahead. The ideas of late philosopher Simone Weil on mortality seem apropos here.  Weil had a poetic conception of something she called "force" — "force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh sinks away." She specifically defined force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.”

The Tsarnaevs were a force that marathon day; a force that turned people into corpses. It is force "exercised to its limit…Somebody was here and the next minute there is nobody here at all." The younger Tsarnaev has not yet been subjected to the force that kills in return, his sentence makes him the subject of a different sort of force. Something Weil describes as "the force that does not kill just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready over the creature it can kill." It is a force because it too turns its subject into a "thing"; "it turns a man into a stone," she wrote.


This is what the Boston bombing capital trial has essentially been about: Turning Tsarnaev into a thing, be it a monster, dead eyes, a terrorist, a stone. It speaks to the sort of "force" that works through our justice system, that the decision was made to ultimately turn him into a corpse. It is worth noting the Weil called this force, that which kills, "force in its grossest most summary form."