A Tsarnaev death penalty could be a propaganda fiasco

Do we want to make Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into a martyr, or should prosecutors cut a deal for life in prison?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev / High school graduation photo
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev / High school graduation photo

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., January 6, 2015 — The trial of the Boston Marathon bomber started yesterday, with jury selection. The U.S. Attorney General decided to not take the death penalty off the table, making a plea deal next to impossible for the time being. Since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being charged under federal law, Massachusetts’ lack of a death penalty is irrelevant.

The Massachusetts courts struck down the death penalty in the 1980s. Most state residents oppose it. However, it appears that a large majority of people in the state approve of letting the Feds bring charges and impose the penalty in this particular case.

If a jury finds Tsarnaev guilty, it will then decide whether he will be put to death. All the jurors will have to agree. If they cannot, the judge will step in and sentence him to life without parole.

With the strong case the Feds appear to have, there is very little chance that Tsarnaev will not be found guilty. What appears to be the issue is whether he will be sentenced to death.

To many, the whole trial appears to be no more than symbolic, and a chance for attorneys to use the lime light to promote their careers, at least on the accusing side. It will cost millions of dollars, with no significant benefits for the taxpayers or the victims of the bombing.

In a logical world, the Feds would take the death penalty off the negotiating table and the defense would agree to life in prison without parole. Maybe this will eventually be the outcome; let’s hope not too much taxpayer money is wasted in the posturing that is taking place now.

Why not the death penalty?

There is the possibility that one or more of the jurors will stand against it, and the end result would be no execution. Even if the decision is unanimous, appeals could drag for decades before Tsarnaev is executed. This delay will serve to strengthen his martyr status with radical Islamists, and even with less radicalized people around the world.

One thing that most Americans fail to realize is that the rest of the world does not see the death penalty the same way America does.

While we suffer and rage at the sight of Americans being beheaded by ISIS, we don’t realize that many in the rest of the world see our legal executions in a very similar light. This is doubly true when the person executed has committed what to them is a political or religious act.

That may seem outrageous to you, but the line between terrorism and heroism is blurry at times.

Is this the wrong way to see the world? Let’s look at an example.

In 1946 Menachan Begin led a commando group in Israel that bombed the King David Hotel and killed 91 people, mostly British citizens. This was by any measure an act of terrorism, but since Israel won the conflict, Begin was was a war hero. He later became Prime Minister of Israel.

Begin later said that a phone call had been made 20 to 25 minutes before the explosion to notify the Brits, but apparently this was ignored.

To many fanatics, what Tsarnaev did is not very different from what Begin did. Most of us can see a difference; Begin was involved in a formal conflict in which the British were seen as sympathizing with the enemy, the Arabs. But to many, especially in the Arab world it is very difficult to see this difference.

Executing Tsarnaev will be seen by some in the same way we see the horrible killings of our citizens at the hands of extremists. This martyrdom will be evoked every time there is news regarding Tsarnaev’s appeals if he gets the death penalty.

The Feds should take the death penalty off the table and accept a plea for life without parole. Once in jail, Tsarnaev is less likely to be a focus of extremist propaganda. A good example of this is what happened to Sirhan Sirhan after his assassination of Robert Kennedy.


Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a rabid opponent of the death sentence as it only brutalizes society. He is in Twitter (chibcharus), Google+ and Facebook (Mario Salazar).


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  • Monique DC

    Mario, I agree that the death penalty is a waste of time. And, after living abroad for many years, I do understand the global view that the US execution process is barbaric itself (certainly the last few botched attempts at this is evidence of that). Grandstanding lawyers at the tax payers expense also a waste of time.
    While due process is appropriate, the amount of money that death penalty cases cost is exorbitant. merely from a fiscal perspective, the death penalty is a bad policy. Having state-sponsored murder is also suspect to me. It is true that we have some people in the world who are badly damaged and who cause horrific harm to others. Killing them will not change the outcomes. Nor has the potential of the death penalty proved to be a deterrent.
    The desire for revenge is only fueled by elaborate proceedings that this one is sure to be. It is time we evolved beyond revenge.
    Thank you for this article, Mario.

  • Mario, I am not in principle opposed to the death penalty. In the case of Tsarnaev, I agree with you that the death penalty would be counterproductive. Prosecutors need to seal a deal for life without parole, and let Tsarnaev rot in prison away from the bright light of publicity which feeds his cause. Going through a public trial and the numerous appeals generated by a death sentence creates more news, more interest, more encouragement for disturbed, angry zealots.

  • Gradus Quia

    It is mental illness to evaluate every action as a political statement and to be held hostage by the potential that someone might glean a message contrary to that desired.

    The answer to peace in the Western world does not lie in fewer Muslim deaths and more Western ones.