Thursday, June 25, 2015

Yesterday's Sentence

I followed the events yesterday in the formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in two capacities – first as one of a small number of protestors standing outside the Moakley Courthouse, where it was scheduled to be handed down later that day, and then as only one more helpless radio listener and web surfer, without even that morning's illusion of influence. To try at this point to describe everything I thought and felt that day would result in an inchoate mess, but the word heartbroken goes some way toward the truth. 

I went to the vigil early in the morning, before the final statements had begun and the day’s events underway, and after that I had to be at work, so it wasn’t until my drive home at night that I heard pieces of Dzhokhar’s apology and the judge’s sentence -- the latter of which I have found especially difficult to dislodge from my mind since then.

Judge George O’Toole was of course legally obliged to hand down the same sentence that the jury arrived at, so he can hardly be blamed for it. However, no one compelled him to make the hateful statement he did before doing so. He freely chose the option of reading out to a person young enough to be his son, if not grandson, words that not only condemned that person to die, but that tried to take from him even the short— because deliberately abridged – life he has had. The statement reads in part:
“One of Shakespeare’s characters observes: 'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.' So it will be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Whenever your name is mentioned, what will be remembered is the evil you have done. No one will remember that your teachers were fond of you. No one will mention that your friends found you funny and fun to be with. No one will say you were a talented athlete or that you displayed compassion in being a Best Buddy or that you showed more respect to your women friends than your male peers did. What will be remembered is that you murdered and maimed innocent people and that you did it willfully and intentionally.”
The judge no doubt chose these particular words for a reason. Death penalty abolitionist Bryan Stevenson has often used the following line to try to convey to people the essential inhumanity of capital punishment: “Each of us," he says, "is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” It is by a certain logic, therefore, that the judge felt the need entirely to controvert that truth in the process of sentencing a 21-year-old to death. The judge said to Dzhokhar, in effect: you are nothing but the worst you have ever done. Perhaps the judge needed to convince himself of that, in order to read the sentence he did.

Judge O’Toole is a representative of secular law and human justice, but it’s hard to escape the sense that the condemnation he delivered was ultimately a theological one – it was a judgment at last on Dzhokhar’s immortal state. In his statement’s religious anathemas, as in its grandiloquence and bombastic quotations, it resembled the kind of 18th century British hanging sentence that, as recounted by Peter Linebaugh, would always end with the formula, "you shall hang by the neck till you be dead! dead! dead! and may God have mercy on your soul." In this case, however, the judge’s statement lacks even the proverbially hypocritical plea for future clemency that ended these declamations.

The judge was not alone in invoking religious elements – everything I read and heard yesterday seemed to speak of gods and afterlives – even from sources I didn’t think had any views on the subject. Perhaps the most bizarre example I saw came from the New York Daily News. This tabloid was kind enough to refer to the protest I participated in, which is what led me to the article, but within its text I found these words: “Tamerlan [Tsarnaev] is already in hell.” This is not a quotation from anyone. It is a judgment delivered in the ostensibly dispassionate voice of the journalist, as if it were simple fact. Evidently, yesterday was a moment for long-repressed theologies to have a public airing.

Part of what the judge wrote in his statement needed and ought to have been said. He told Dzhokhar that he committed “a monstrous self-deception” by convincing himself that he was somehow right to bomb hundreds and kill four innocent people. “To accomplish it," said Judge O'Toole, "you had to redefine yourself as well. You had to forget your own humanity, the common humanity that you shared with your brother Martin and your sister Lingzi.” He said that if the God Tsarnaev worshipped condoned murder, then it was a “cruel god” indeed.

But if true, what can we say of our own case if we now forget the common humanity of our brother Dzhokhar? And what about the God of Judge O'Toole and the New York Daily News? What sort of God is it who cares only to remember the worst someone has done, and never the good—the relationships he had with family and friends and classmates? What kind of God sentences people to hell, if it is not as cruel a one as Dzhokhar’s? – indeed, an infinitely crueler one, if the sufferings of hell are supposed to be eternal.

The challenge for many of us in the anti-death penalty group outside the courthouse was not to lose sight of the original crime – to remember that the thing we were standing there to protest—the taking of life, the willful denial of humanity—was the same thing that Dzhokhar himself did to four people and that he tried to do to many others -- the difference being, of course, that Dzhokhar's victims were entirely innocent, whereas Dzhokhar is certainly not, as he acknowledged over again in his public statement of remorse yesterday. In pleading that mercy be shown him, there was a temptation to occlude such truths beneath a rhetoric of sentimentality, which would be a terrible wrong.

It has also to be said, however, that in our society’s response to the marathon bombings, it has sacrificed so much of its own innocence that it is not purely our fault if it's hard to always keep Dzhokhar's killings in mind. It did not have to be this way. We could have shown as a society that no part of us accepted the vengeful ideology that motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to plant those bombs and to kill innocent people. We could have shown that we had the strength of mind and heart not to repay evil for evil. Instead, once we had found the surviving teenager who had committed the crime, we had a long drawn-out debate over whether to kill him or to torture him by means of a lifetime of near-total isolation in a Supermax prison until he died. 

It’s not purely an illusion, therefore, or a consequence of the inevitable tunnel-vision of activists, that starts to make Dzhokhar's guilt increasingly difficult to hold in view. It is part of the nature of revenge, which acts by definition to make a victim of the perpetrator, and, by extension, to make perpetrators of all of us who act as its instruments. As Edgar Lee Master’s corrupt Circuit Judge reflects upon a life of justice that suddenly seems to him a life of crime: “worse [...] was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear, / Seeing that even Hod Putt, the murderer, /Hanged by my sentence,/ Was innocent in soul compared with me.”

It's easy to accuse our society in all these regards of failing in Christian charity, but by their own lights, of course, the judge, the tabloids, and the others who spoke of hell and damnation yesterday were preaching a Christian message. Theirs was the Jesus of the Gospels who will one day divide “the sheep from the goats,” who throws the unrepentant sinners into Gehenna.

This was not the only kind of Christianity I saw yesterday, however, and it was not the only version of Jesus that was invoked. The people who organized the vigil I joined were mostly Catholics and Quakers who would describe themselves as Christians -- at whatever remove of heterodoxy. (There was at least one Unitarian Universalist there, but he happened to be me.) They held banners saying “Blessed are the Merciful” and sang about the balm in Gilead that “makes the wounded whole.” Theirs was the Jesus who dined even with the tax collectors and the Pharisees, because, as he pointed out, a wise physician tends to those who are sick rather than to those already well.

I find I cannot describe myself as a Christian the way these women and men do, no matter how expansive we make our definition of the term. I have never been able to reconcile the fact that both of these Christs -- the Jesus of mercy and the Jesus of Gehenna-- appear in the Gospels, and I am not willing to accept the popular solution of simply ignoring one for the other. It seems to me that salvation either includes everyone, or it means nothing at all. No one can really be saved if someone else—Tamerlan, as the tabloids assure us – is going to be banished to hell. To say the same in earthly terms, there has been no real justice if the burden of great wrong and intolerable suffering has simply been shifted onto those we designate for revenge.

I was, however -- indeed, for precisely this reason -- also making a theological statement by going to the vigil yesterday, just as the other protestors were. I was making an attempt to bring to worldly life an otherworldly doctrine—Universalism -- that in its original form referred to a literal heaven in which I do not believe. This worldly Universalism is not something I live out every day, nor does it come easily to me, but it stares me down and recalls me to myself whenever I find I am starting to forget that universal really does mean universal, that everyone has to mean everyone. Indeed, it’s looking at me rather accusingly right now, as I write this post. It’s reminding me that everyone includes Judge O’Toole as well, and that if Jesus dined with tax collectors in ancient Judea, he would surely dine with federal judges who pass capital sentences today.

The people at the protest yesterday who invoked this Christ of forgiveness were much better witnesses to their theology than I am. Most of their small number had been standing outside the courthouse every day during Dzhokhar’s long trial. They are nuns and Quakers and lay Catholics and pacifist veterans who stood there trying day after day to remind the world of that least sophisticated of human truths but which has never yet been improved upon: that two wrongs do not make a right. I was merely making one morning’s visit to a world they daily inhabit.

Their goodness was as heartbreaking to me in its own way as the many spiteful and malicious events of the day had been. It was heartbreaking the way goodness always is—because it is fragile and fleeting, even among the best of us. It was heartbreaking because I realized the distance that lay between them and me -- because in their presence I was afflicted by a guilt I often feel-- the sense that I get around to everything too late, that it always takes me too long. 

But that feeling, I suppose, is just me missing the whole point of yesterday’s witness. What we were all there to proclaim, in so many words, was that it's not too late for any of us.

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