Cosman: Despite severity of crime, capital punishment not proper course of action for Tsarnaev

On the morning of Monday April 22, the White House announced alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would not be tried as an enemy combatant, rather as the United States citizen he is. Hours later, Tsarnaev was officially charged under federal criminal law with one count of “use of weapon of mass destruction” and one count of “malicious destruction of property resulting in death” – charges for which Tsarnaev faces the death penalty. 

Tsarnaev’s impending trial brings to light once again the U.S.’ use of capital punishment when sentencing the most grievous of criminals, an unjust and barbaric practice that undermines the federal government’s moral authority.

From his arrest on the evening of Friday April 19, Tsarnaev’s legal dealings have been questionable. First there was the issue of whether or not he was read his Miranda Rights – legal rights bestowed to him as a U.S. citizen – and then there was the matter of whether to try him in court as an enemy combatant at a military tribunal, suspending certain citizen rights. 

Before Tsarnaev’s arrest on Friday April 19, Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted both that he hoped officials “will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as enemy combatant” and “the last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights.” 

Right from the start, there was a sense that moral and legal integrity should have been, even needed to be, suspended. And now with the official charges bringing a possible death sentence, even more U.S. politicians have disregarded the moral duty of the state. 

Both Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein came out on Sunday April 21 in favor of the death penalty for Tsarnaev. 

“This is just the kind of case that it should be applied to,” Schumer said, going so far as to say he “hope[d] they would apply it in federal court.” 

Since 1973, over 1,200 individuals were executed using the death penalty. Timothy McVeigh, the man charged for the Oklahoma City bombing and whose case perhaps most mirrors Tsarnaev’s, was executed on June 11, 2001. Currently, 32 states adhere to capital punishment, though Massachusetts, where Tsarnaev’s crimes were committed, does not. And yet given the momentum of the case, it seems likely Tsarnaev will indeed face execution.

Capital punishment is the last resort reserved for the most atrocious crimes, yet it shouldn’t be a resort at all. It should not be in the federal government’s authority – or a state government’s for that matter – to decide if an individual lives or dies. The state needs to be morally superior to the individual. As much as one may individually want Tsarnaev dead for his crimes, society as a collective, and its government, must be held to a higher moral standard – one that is above sentencing a citizen to death. Even in a case of domestic terrorism such as this, the death penalty is an unjust sentence. 

The federal government should not be in the business of execution. Killing a killer is not a just punishment; it is simply a return to Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” with more red tape. The systematic execution of an individual, let alone an American citizen, is an abhorrence that reduces the federal government’s moral credibility to nil.  

When Attorney General Eric Holder said that the U.S. government “will hold those who are responsible for these heinous acts said to the fullest extent of the law” he likely means execution. By sentencing Tsarnaev, a naturalized U.S. citizen, to death, the federal government would once demonstrate that it is just as ruthless as the individual it is punishing.