I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Dzokhar Tsarnaev ― the younger of the two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings that took place in April of 2013 ― had been sentenced to death. Sitting at a small burger joint about 15 minutes from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, the announcement seemed to creep out of the television that the restaurant had mounted in one of its upper corners.
I was elated.
I had fixated on the Marathon Bombing for what seemed like every day since it had happened, scrolling through social media as I tried to figure out how to mourn. The BOSTON STRONG campaign, while well-meaning, felt ill-fitting to me, and I felt distant enough from the actual tragedy itself that purchasing something bearing that slogan seemed almost dishonest. Still, I love my city dearly, and I was tempted to take the attack carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers as personally as I could.
So when I heard that the one surviving bomber was slated to die, I wept with joy. It was embarrassing and ugly, but in the moment I felt vindicated. Despite the fact that the family of the youngest victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard, had called for Tsarnaev not to face capital punishment, I felt comfortable saying that justice had been done. The best justice was the justice that empowered me.
Now, more than a year following the delivery of that sentence, any vindication or joy I felt is gone. Whatever moral thrill came with the news that Dzokhar Tsarnaev would be put to death for his crimes has long evaporated. All that’s left is righteous anger’s bitter aftertaste and a pang of self-loathing.
I’ve been thinking about Tsarnaev more and more recently as the trial of white supremacist and terrorist Dylann Roof draws to a close. On June 17, 2015, Roof attended an evening Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1816, it is home to the oldest historically black congregation south of Baltimore. While at the Bible study, Roof proceeded to open fire on the others in attendance, killing nine and wounding one. He then fled the scene.
Whatever moral thrill came with the news that Dzokhar Tsarnaev would be put to death for his crimes has long evaporated. All that’s left is righteous anger’s bitter aftertaste and a pang of self-loathing.
Roof’s enthusiasm for white supremacist and white nationalist movements quickly came to light, and his crime renewed debate over South Carolina’s decision to fly the Confederate battle flag over its state legislature. While some tried to defend the state’s continued worship of an explicitly racist symbol, others vehemently condemned both the flag and its symbolism. On July 10, the battle flag was officially removed from the South Carolina State House.
Five days following the shooting, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that Roof had been indicted by a grand jury on 33 counts (nine counts of using a firearm to commit homicide, and 24 counts of hate crimes under various statutes), 18 of which carried the federal death penalty.
Roof’s trial began on Dec. 7, 2016. Proceedings lasted eight days. On Dec. 15, after no more than two hours of deliberation, a jury found Roof guilty on all 33 counts. Less than two weeks following, Roof stated that he would proceed to sentencing without attorneys and present no further witnesses or evidence. He refuses to undergo psychological evaluation that might call into question his competency, and he writes in his journal that he is opposed to psychology in general, because “it is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
Roof has absolutely no interest; it seems, in attempting what The New York Times, on Sunday, called “his best opportunity to avoid execution.” When the penalty phase of Roof’s trial begins on Tuesday, an opening statement will be the extent of what he will present.
I am not qualified to speak on Dylann Roof’s mental health. I think it is dangerous to ascribe racist violence to mental illness, because racism is not a form of insanity, no matter how irrationally grotesque. In my own opinion, Dylann Roof was completely aware of what he was doing. He was coldblooded, merciless, and calculating. He has shown absolutely no remorse.
And for him to receive the death penalty would be a tremendous failure of justice.
I do not want this to be taken as a call for some sort of leniency for Dylann Roof. He is a monster and, for his crimes, he deserves the harshest penalty that our justice system can reasonably hand down. But there is nothing reasonable or just about the death penalty. It’s an archaic penal tool that the United States justice system should no longer have at its disposal.
Now, some might truly feel that Dylann Roof deserves to die for what he did. I don’t feel morally or spiritually qualified to weigh in on such a matter. However, I believe there is a fundamental difference between Dylann Roof deserving death and the United States government having the right to sentence him to it.
Discussing the death penalty is difficult, because the debate will always come down to that last point: whether or not one feels in their gut that capital punishment is moral and just. Ultimately, the federal death penalty has survived nearly every solid logistical argument that can be leveled against it: it is more costly than life imprisonment; the means by which it is carried out are far too imperfect to ensure that death will come quickly and avoid being “cruel and unusual”; multiple death row inmates have been exonerated and, with our justice system as tainted by racial and socio-economic bias as it is, it is absurd to assume we can say with any certainty that all of those we doom to execution will be irrefutably guilty; and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that capital punishment functions as a meaningful deterrent to violent crime.
I believe there is a fundamental difference between Dylann Roof deserving death and the United States government having the right to sentence him to it.
What remains, then, is the seeking of that feeling of vindication that I experienced when I first heard that Dzokhar Tsarnaev would be killed for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings. That’s the thing that keeps capital punishment alive: the small kernel of Old Testament self-righteousness that exists in all of us, the certainty that we are capable of telling who and what is deserving of death.
I cannot act as though I am above that impulse. I don’t believe anyone truly can. Whether or not the elements that compel us to feel satisfaction in the wake of violent merciless justice manifest in full in everyone, each and every person has at some point felt the beginning of that venomous surge. In this case, the task becomes minimizing how much sway that holds over us, mitigating how much of that we are willing to use to power institutional forces.
Possibly more so than any other aspect of politics or of governance, the pursuit and practice of justice occupies a nexus between rationality and emotion; it requires both to function properly. For the same tenuous “irrational” humanity that spawns the glee we might feel at seeing harm come to those who have wronged also provides the material for compassion and for mercy. And just as our reliance on the rational and logistical machinery of law and order often blinds us to the human import of evidence and the way in which that evidence must be ethically applied in the pursuit of truth, it also allows us to surrender our personal impulses and to recognize that each of us—on our own, without the guidance of our peers and the state structures that they compose—is ultimately a deeply imperfect vessel for justice.
That’s the thing that keeps capital punishment alive: the small kernel of Old Testament self-righteousness that exists in all of us, the certainty that we are capable of telling who and what is deserving of death.
At the end of November, The New York Times spoke with members of the congregation to which Dylann Roof laid siege. They are almost uniformly opposed to the execution of Dylann Roof, though their reasoning varies. Some believe that death is an easy way out for a man who committed such a heinous, hateful act. Others believe that the appeals process that will surely follow a death sentence will only serve to prolong the trauma suffered by the community. Still others express more traditional opposition to capital punishment in general, questioning its efficacy and ethicality. None seemed to find comfort in the idea of the execution.
In making a case to spare Dylann Roof, it is far too easy to fall back on arguments that erase the unknowable agony of his victims and their families, reducing the pain of these men and women to a vague cliché of trauma that can be soothed with empty platitudes about proving that we’re better than Dylann Roof or how killing Dylann Roof won’t resurrect any of those who died.
Those who mourn and ache for Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are well aware of these things.
This country’s soul is not in such a lofty place that we can distinguish ourselves from the violence committed by Roof—part of a historical continuum of violence that America has permitted throughout her lifespan—by virtue of sparing him from lethal injection. But in recognizing this, we must also recognize the urge among white Americans to use the execution of Dylann Roof as a sort of fix-all fig leaf, a way to demonstrate that the American state is, indeed, not a racist apparatus. Of course, if America was racist, why would it punish a racist?
This sort of logic, this minuscule reparation by means of self-congratulatory state violence, is a far more insidious impulse than the emotional urge to take an eye for an eye. This is a far more dishonest and deceitful impulse, that fails both to reckon with the consequences of a state empowered to execute and the history that has carried us to the moment where we must consider this particular execution. To allow a white political establishment to treat the execution of Dylann Roof as a demonstration of a virtue we have neither possessed nor earned throughout our history is, certainly, the worst and ugliest of both worlds.
In the days after I heard that Dzokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to die, I felt a strange sort of gratitude, as though I and my city had been given, not just a conclusion, but a genuine gift. In my pain and my self-righteousness, I felt as though I had been empowered by my government, by my justice system. I felt richer.
Now, I know that a death sentence is a gift to no one but the men and women empowered to hand it down. It’s not a balm for the anguish of those in mourning, but a malevolent little machine designed to convert that anguish into a power and an energy in which no victim will ever share. The only thing empowered was the system that got to do the killing. I was just as pained and impoverished as before.
No matter who you are, there is no richness in blood spilled in your name.