Tsarnaev & the Death Penalty


After two years the jury has finally come to agreement that the 2013 Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty. Sadly, it was not surprising to see some of the reactions pouring through on Twitter under the #Tsarnaev hashtag:

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You get the picture. Of course, this is not to make a claim of having brought forth a representative sample here. Many people have expressed great disappointment at the sentence, and early surveys prior to the sentence indicted that most Bostonians thought Tsarnaev should receive a life sentence over the death penalty. However, the fact stands that given the choice, the jury opted for revenge. The question here is not whether the sentence is just in the strict sense of the term. The question is whether it represents elevation to a higher ideal in the face of an atrocity committed against society, or debasement to the standards of those who aggress upon us. Sadly, the answer seems to be the latter.

Cesare Beccaria

The death sentence is a hotly debated topic. But seeing the immediate celebrations and frankly what I find to be a troubling thirst for blood as many have displayed (one tweeted about how they wished they were a nurse so they could fill up the syringes for the lethal injection!), I was reminded of a chapter from a treatise titled On Crimes and Punishment written 1764 by the Italian political philosopher and criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794). It is worthy to note that Beccaria had a great influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States, a group of people who would arguably look upon America today with some degree of disappointment to say the least. Below are excerpts from chapter XXVIII, The Death Penalty, which I think should be contemplated on regardless of one’s position on this issue (translated from the Italian by David Young, 1986, Hackett Publishing Company):

Who on earth has ever willed that other men should have the liberty to kill him? How could this minimal sacrifice of the liberty of each each person [which establishes law and order in a sovereign state] ever include the sacrifice of the greatest good of all, life itself? And even if such were the case, how could this be reconciled with the principle that a man does not have the right to take his own life? And, not having this right himself, how could he transfer it to another person or to society as a whole?

The death penalty, then, is not a right… [it is] a war of the nation against a citizen, a campaign waged on the ground that the nation has judged the destruction of his being to be useful or necessary. If I can demonstrate that capital punishment is neither useful nor necessary, however, I shall have vindicated the cause of humanity.

If the experience of all ages, during which the ultimate punishment has never deterred men who were determined to harm society; if the example of the citizens of Rome; or if twenty years of the reign of the Empress Elizabeth of Muscovy, who has given the leaders of her people an illustrious example that is worth at least as much as many conquests bought with the blood of her country’s sons – if all this does not persuade men, who always suspect the voice of reason and heed the voice of authority, then one needs only to consult human nature in order to feel the truth of my assertion.

It is not the severity of punishment that has the greatest impact on the human mind, but rather its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and surely stimulated by tiny repeated impressions than by a strong but temporary movement. The rule of habit is universal over every sentient being, and, as man talks and walks and tends to his needs with the aid of habit, so moral ideas are fixed in his mind only by lasting and repeated blows. The most powerful restraint against crime is not the terrible but fleeting spectacle of a villain’s death, but the faint and prolonged example of a man who, deprived of his liberty, has become a beast of burden, repeating the society he has offended with his labors [sic]. Each of us reflects, “I myself shall be reduced to such a condition of prolonged wretchedness if I commit similar misdeeds.” This thought is effective because it recurs quite frequently, and it is more powerful than the idea of death, which men always see in the hazy distance.

The death penalty becomes an entertainment for the majority and, for a few people, the object of pity mixed with scorn. Both of these sentiments alike fill the hearts of the spectators to a greater extent than does the salutary fear that the law claims to inspire.

In order to be just, a penalty should have only the degree of intensity needed to deter other men from crime. Now there is no one who, on reflection, would choose the total and permanent loss of his own liberty, no matter how advantageous a crime might be. Therefore, the intensity of a sentence of servitude for life, substituted for the death penalty, has everything needed to deter the most determined spirit. Indeed, I would say more: a great many people look upon death with a tranquil and steady eye, some from fanaticism, others from vanity (a sentiment that almost always accompanies men even beyond the grave), some from a final and desperate attempt to live no longer or to leave their misery behind; but neither fanaticism nor vanity survives among fetters and chains, under the prod or the yoke, or in an iron cage, and the desperate man finds a beginning rather than an end to his troubles. 

Our spirit withstands violence and extreme yet fleeting pain better than it does time and unending weariness, for it can, so to speak, draw itself together for a moment to repel the former, but its elasticity is insufficient to resist the prolonged and repeated actions of the latter. With capital punishment, one crime is required for each example offered to the nation; with the penalty of a lifetime at hard labor, a single crime affords a host of lasting examples. Moreover, if it be important that men should see the power of the law frequently, judicial executions should not be separated by too great an interval; this presupposes frequent crimes. Thus, in order for this punishment to be useful, it must not make as strong an impression on men as it ought to make; in other words, it must be effective and ineffective at the same time. If someone were to say that life at hard labor is as painful as death and therefore equally cruel, I should reply that, taking all the unhappy moments of perpetual slavery together, it is perhaps even more painful, but these moments are spread out over a lifetime, and capital punishment exercises all its power in an instant. And this is the advantage of life at hard labor: it frightens the spectator more than the victim, for the former considers the entire sum of unhappy moments, and the latter is distracted from the future by the misery of the present moment. 

Capital punishment is not useful because of the example of cruelty which it gives to men. If the passions or the necessity of war have taught people to shed human blood, the laws that moderate men’s conduct ought not to augment the cruel example, which is all the more pernicious because judicial execution is carried out methodically and formally. It appears absurd to me that the laws, which are the expression of the public will and which detest and punish homicide, commit murder themselves, and, in order to dissuade citizens from assassination, command public assassination.

Had Tsarnaev gotten life in prison, he would have served his sentence at the Colorado Supermax prison shown, or as The Boston Globe calls it “a high-tech version of hell” showing here (video is the property of The Boston Globe):