Thoughts on Pain, Justice, and the Tsarnaev Trial

Just blocks from the grey, nondescript government building where I work, three thousand jurors were called on to fulfill their civic duty. After filling out lengthy questionnaires they went through arduous questioning and cross-questioning. Ultimately those three thousand dwindled down to 12 with a couple of alternates. They were initially not known by name, instead they are Juror #1 all the way to Juror #12.

These men and women, under oath, will ultimately decide the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the Boston Marathon bomber.

Today is the anniversary of that bombing, and last week the verdict came out. Guilty on all 30 counts. The next step is for the jury to decide whether Tsarnaev will receive the death penalty. It’s ironic that in this state, a state where the death penalty was abolished in 1984, that so many on the streets want this and more for the bomber. The hatred of this young man is palpable.

Cambridge was home to Dzhokhar for years as he attended elementary, middle, and high school at public schools. A picture of him at prom Junior year shows him smiling beside my daughter, she a year older than he. It was the year she was elected prom queen.

How long its been since that day! Though only a few years, in events its been eons.

News cameras circle like hawks around the area, as they have done for weeks. And those who are victims of the attacks continue to live lives of emotional and physical pain.

Boston, indeed Massachusetts has had a taste of the collective tragedy that other cities and countries have experienced at a much more prolonged and larger scale. The grief has given way to anger, and has moved now to relief that a trial is actually almost over.  Most people would say they “just want it over”, want justice to be served.

What is justice when it comes to events like these? What outcome will ease the pain of the event? What am I to think as I observe the events from the sidelines? Many who have been wronged never receive justice from the people or countries that committed violent acts against them. And then there’s Dzhokhar himself, recently caught on film in prison orange, feet chained and escorted by two guards walking him quickly into a building. I read an old article from The Atlantic written soon after the bombing took place that warns against empathy for the bomber.

All these attempts to get inside Dzhokhar’s head and understand his mental processes have an unintended side-effect: empathy. Just as reading novels is proven to increase our empathy, reading dozens of articles hinting at different possible motivations increases our empathy for the main character of this story.

Let’s remember, though, that it might not be deserved, that it might even be grotesque and wrong. We still know very little. We have a responsibility to try to understand context and not to whip up misplaced hatred. But we should also be careful not to invent justifications for a heinous crime, and even more careful not to suggest that our own imagined justifications lessen the suspect’s moral culpability.

In the end it just doesn’t matter how sweet Dzhokhar’s classmates say he is if he’s guilty of all he’s alleged to have done. [from Enough Sympathy: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Is Not a Victim]

Human justice can only take us so far, can only ease the pain of loss by small increments. Human justice can offer some comfort and solace, some recognition of heinous acts, but it falls short of providing real healing. And yet, it’s all we have.

Today on this anniversary I feel deeply sad. I feel sad, yet humbled and encouraged, by the victims, who continue to move ahead despite hundreds of doctors appointments, counseling sessions, and nightmares. I feel sad for the city, a city brought to its knees, a city so in control and proud that is suddenly out of control. And I also feel sad for a life wasted by a terrible choice to commit a crime that left so many injured, both in body and in soul.

But this I know: Evil did not win. Not that day. Not any day. It feels like it does, but it doesn’t. Evil will not, cannot win. While its effects are horrific, its lifespan is short, its days are numbered. Grace, Mercy, and Forgiveness will win. For their lifespan is eternal.

I’ll end with the words I wrote two years ago: “And so I pray the only words I know how: Lord have mercy. Hear our prayer. Free us from our pain.”

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Pain, Justice, and the Tsarnaev Trial

  1. But I disagree with the Atlanta writer…. Empathy does not eliminate the need for justice….nor does it minimize the reality of the horrors. Empathy allows us to understand our own humanity, our own capacity toward evil. Empathy invites us into humility and holiness. We recognize our own propensities and we recognize the power of God at work in us tethering us to grace. Any goodness in us reflects God’s heart. Empathy highlights that.
    True justice is crucial. We long for it. We ache for it. We want the evils of the world righted. We want all things to be well. I firmly believe that empathy doesn’t change that. Empathy reminds us that Dzhokhar is not a monster, he is a young man like many young men…. and it increases the fervor of our prayers for the other young men we know. It takes the edge off some of our hatred, which when left too long, drives more evil.
    I’ve wondered how and what you would write about this process. I have prayed often for this young man, human and hurting. I’ve prayed for the trial. I’ve prayed for the jurors. I’ve prayed for the outcomes. And now I pray for Jesus to be the loudest voice in the room as they determine his punishment.


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