Boston Wrong?

by Phyllis Zagano

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

The United States of America is going to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the "Boston bomber." One sunny April day two years ago ended with 267 people dead or maimed at the Boston Marathon.

Fourteen pre-certified jurors sat through days of heart-wrenching testimony, knowing their answer to a single question qualified them to be there: Could you vote to impose the death penalty? Seven women, five men, and a couple of alternates said: Yes. And so they did.

No matter the Commonwealth of Massachusetts hasn't executed anyone since 1947. No matter it eliminated the death penalty in 1984. The federal crime of home-grown terrorism warranted a federal trial. So now another U.S. citizen -- Tsarnaev got his papers on Sept. 11, 2012 -- is on death row, along with more than 3,000 others.

What does this say about us?

Three U.S. states -- Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin -- eliminated the death penalty in the 19th century. Years later, 15 states plus the District of Columbia followed suit.

Some of the people touched by Tsarnaev's carnage want their horror to end with his death. Others say the mandatory appeal of his sentence, yet to be formally handed down by the trial judge, will extend their suffering. Prior polling found just 15 percent of Boston's residents agreed death would fit this case.

Are they, are we, forgetting something? Are we forgetting that the human contract we have, one with another, requires us to value and to cherish the sacredness of all human life?

In 1971, pacifist Eileen Egan wrote: "The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can't protect some life and not others." Years later, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made the phrase famous with his speech at Fordham University, he listed where the consistent ethic of life is endangered: genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare, and the care of the terminally ill. They really are connected.

On the death penalty, the Catholic church says nation-states have the right to use it only in self-defense as a deterrent. That would seem to say you can have it, but not use it.

Such is not the discussion here. There is every reason to believe the U.S. government in asking for the death penalty fully intended -- and now intends -- to use it.

The jury's verdict, despite horribly botched attempts in the recent past, is death by lethal injection. Intravenous drug cocktails seem humane compared with some ancient methods, such as boiling, dismemberment and the guillotine, each no longer on the world's stage. We do still hear and sometimes see beheading, burning, hanging and stoning, along with crucifixion, impalement and firing squads.

Why? Societies with skewed legal systems kill their own and others for reasons the U.S. has outgrown. Not long ago, Iran hanged a 26-year-old woman for killing a man who tried to rape her. Indonesia recently used a firing squad to execute convicted drug smugglers. A while back in Syria, a woman accused of adultery was stoned to death by terrorists of the so-called Islamic State group and her father.

The stories never end and rarely change. Some years back, a young Somali girl withdrew accusations of rape when her attackers' families promised money. Deemed guilty of adultery, she was stoned to death in a soccer stadium before 1,000 cheering men.

We recoil in horror from these and other levies of national "justice." Our internal gyroscopes sense a terrible off-balance in the facts of killing human beings. Yet we remain calm when an educated jury in a clean courtroom in a major U.S. city says to a citizen: You are sentenced to death by lethal injection.

What is the difference? Do we presume the people beheaded, crucified or stoned are innocent within their own systems? I was once told the distinction between abortion and the death penalty is the innocence of the aborted child and the guilt of the condemned person. We see horror around the globe, yet we retain our own barbarism. What does our killing a person -- and believe me, it is "us," no matter where we live -- what does our killing a person do to us as individuals? The fact is we are all complicit by our silence and by our taxes.

By now, 140 nations have eliminated the death penalty, but many maintain it and have used it in the past few years: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Yemen.

And the United States.

Boston was wronged. But was the asking for and granting of the death penalty there correct? Is it ever right, anywhere?

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak Sept. 19 in Philadelphia. Her newest books include Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Phyllis Zagano's column, Just Catholic, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters