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The trial determining whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be sentenced to death is an attempt to decide exactly how the Boston bomber should be classified as a villain—in the eyes of the law and the records of history.


This week we were treated to an absurd and media-baiting spectacle from the prosecution, focusing on an image of Tsarnaev giving the middle finger to a prison camera while alone in a cell. The prosecutor used the still frame, taken out of context, to suggest of the 21-year-old that “without remorse, he remains untouched by the grief and the loss that he caused.” Glenn Greenwald rightly noted that a longer view of the camera footage points more to boredom than remorselessness—not that the two are mutually exclusive.

There's an understandable societal desire to seek the motives of a mass killer. Crying bloody murder, we ask and demand "why?" But this penalty trial, which will end in execution or life in prison without parole, will not give the desired access to Tsarnaev's mind. As the prosecution vigorously argues for the death penalty, we should examine what the real punitive and moral difference is in condemning a man to death at the state's hands or an assured eventual death in the state's hands.


The 21-year-old has been convicted of the 30 felony counts for which he was charged. The crimes were laid out, he was found guilty, and is to be punished. The ongoing penalty phase of the trial is a reminder of how criminal justice imports an archaic sense of moral justice. It's not a referendum on guilt but a ruling on, an inscribing into history of, the level of horror officially accorded to the bombing as an event.

Whether Tsarnaev will be executed or rather spend his entire life in prison should not be used as a metric for the tragedy and pain his acts produced. The penalty trial is proving, once again, that our legal system is not a machine of reason and balance. The trial is bartering in moral sentiment, emotion, and anger. It is high drama in a very true sense: the audience already knows the plot, the question is about the protagonist’s interiority, the extremity of violence, and the drive towards a satisfying ending.

To call for execution is to call for a certain type of recognition for the bombings in the annals of history's great horrors. Hence, for example, the prosecution's emphasis on details like the "vulnerable victim," eight-year-old Martin Richard, murdered by one of Tsarnaev's bombs. But there's much wrong with the idea that an event is only established as horrific or tragic if the forces behind it are officially deemed the worst criminals under law—death row criminals. But, clearly, an event's tragic force cannot be determined by the deliberations of our current justice system.

By such logic, the deaths of numerous black Americans like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Ramarley Graham carry no tragic force in history—the cops that killed them were met with no punishment. The Boston bombings were a monstrosity, regardless of what the jury decides Tsarnaev deserves. It's an affront to so many lives, especially black lives, to put stock in our current justice system's decisions about punishment as a good metric of respect for an awful event's significance.


Nor will the penalty trial and judgement deliver any profound revelations about the bomber. Law is an argument—one side argues that the bomber is a remorseless malignity worthy of execution, the other argues that he's an impressionable monster, worthy of life in a cage. The decision that the jury makes between the two options will not reveal some absolute truth about Tsarnaev, rather it will assert as true one of the limited narratives presented by the prosecution or the defense.

It's hard to imagine what satisfaction can come from such a judgement. Tsarnaev has been deemed a villain beyond contempt—sparing him execution is no form of exoneration. When considering one of Shakespeare's most devious villains (or anti-heroes), Iago in Othello, the critic Coleridge argued that the character was a "motiveless malignity," whose speeches to the audience were simply "motive-hunting." But Shakespeare denies his audience satisfaction over the villain's motives. Once his designs have produced the play's tragic and bloody death tableau, Iago refuses to explain his actions. His final words: "demand me nothing, you know what you know."


The Shakespearean justice delivered to his villain is not death, Othello wounds him and says he would prefer that Iago live on in pain; "I want you to live," he says. The tragedy, in any case, is complete. As it was in grim reality when the streets of Boston ran with blood and flesh and bodies mangled by the Tsarnaevs' bombs. If the penalty trial is an effort in moral judgement, to discover Tsarnaev's nature and condemn him appropriately, there will be no such clean conclusion. He is assured a life in pain, either way. And in terms of recognizing the magnitude of his violent act, we know what we know.

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