The Quality of Mercy: What Price Justice?

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

Clementia with her sister goddess, Justice
Clementia with her sister goddess, Justice

Julius Cæsar built a temple to her memory and commissioned statuary depicting the Roman conqueror strolling amiably hand-in-hand with the goddess.  Augustus cited her name in pardoning Cinna for plotting an assassination attempt to install  himself as ruler of Rome. Legend has it that Augustus’ wife, Livia, reminded the emperor that violent retribution against his enemies had not deterred their incessant murderous plotting and thus a new tactic was warranted. It must have worked well as Cinna went on the next year to be named consul and reportedly  left all his possessions to Augustus in his will. The act of mercy also earned  the Roman strongman an undying reputation among the people as the “good emperor.” For citizens of the ancient Italian city-state, Clementia was the ugly goddess murdered for being too rotund and not fitting the Olympian image of health and vigor. She was something else as well — the embodiment of mercy, restraint, forbearance and  humanity. What we still call today the virtue of clemency.

I read Thursday that the USDOJ had decided to ask for the death penalty in its case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged

The Alleged Bomber
The Alleged Bomber

Boston Marathon bomber. Tsarnaev is charged with one of the most horrific acts of wanton brutality ever committed on American soil when he and his brother loaded two backpacks full of shrapnel and high explosives and placed them behind the  appendages of kids and adults watching the Boston City Marathon on Tax Day, 2013. Killing three and horribly wounding 260 in callous savagery few could match, the now 20-year-old’s record of mayhem and senseless violence has resulted in a capital charge of premeditated murder by means of terrorism.

Calling the alleged acts ““heinous, cruel and depraved,” the DOJ bolstered its case for death saying Tsarnaev’s decision to target the Boston Marathon, “an iconic event that draws large crowds of men, women, and children to its final stretch, making it especially susceptible to the act and effects of terrorism … compelled the decision.”

Miriam Conrad,  one of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, said the defense team had no comment. And what could she say? Was little  8-year-old Martin Richard, blown apart as he waited for his chance to catch a glimpse of runners at the finish line, a ruthless capitalist seeking to oppress the downtrodden? Was his 6-year-old sister a conspirator in Western hegemony and thus deserving of losing her leg? Was Martin’s mother really part of the West’s plot to first corrupt and then attack muslim lands in the Mid-East so as to justify her brain injury? Of course not, and rational people all over the globe recognize this and demand justice for making war on civilians in the most cowardly way imaginable — a blast that indiscriminately kills and maims without any thought of  mercy or justice.

It seems so simple and exceedingly just: an eye for an eye; a life for a life. But is it both simple and just? Does it serve our interests to snuff out a life that snuffed out the lives of others? Innocent others? And is the alternative of life imprisonment too much for the nation’s soul to bear?

The chief indictment against the West in the words of the terrorist himself scrawled on the walls of the boat cabin where he was finally apprehended say his actions were in retaliation for US attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those innocents killed in the bombing in Boston  were “collateral damage” and Tsarnaev added this  even more chilling adumbrate:

“The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians. I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished,” and “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”

Of course, these are the words of the barbarian and it strikes us odd, as we sit here in the garden of the West, that one so young could be so devoid of human compassion that murdering 8-year-olds is nothing more than “collateral damage.” This was no bombardier’s indifference for abstract killing; this was personal, close-up murder of children in service to an ideology. This was turning the knife even as he looked into his victim’s eyes and feeling ever so– even divinely — justified.

But is capital punishment in our own national interests and does it serve the ends of justice? A death sentence for a near teen muslim from an American court confirms everything radical-leaning muslims detest about perceived US hypocrisy and undermines the strides more moderate muslims have made in combatting radical strains in the faith.  In 2007, surveys conducted by Pew Center Research showed that a majority of Muslims surveyed in 10 out of the 16  predominantly muslim countries responded that suicide bombings and other violence against civilians is “never” justified, though an average of 38% believe it is justified at least rarely.

The poll results point up the cultural war going on inside Islam about the tactics of terrorism in the overall strategy to expand the faith and respond to the West. Even more recent attitude surveys show a decidedly moderating tide according to a 2013 assessment  in which “72% of Muslims said violence against civilians is never justified, and in the US, 81% of Muslims opposed such violence. About 14% of Muslims in the nations surveyed (and 8% of Muslims in the US) said violence against civilians is “often” or “sometimes” justified. An average of 25% of Muslims among the 20 nations surveyed believe suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets is justified at least rarely.” More radical nations like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, and Libya were not polled but densely populated muslim nations like Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia were surveyed.

In addition, mainstream muslim groups have heeded criticism from the West and condemned wanton terrorist violence revealed in such recent attacks as the terrorist massacre at the Westgate Mall in Kenya. CBS Minnesota reported that “the horrifying attack in Kenya was strongly condemned by Muslim leaders at a Minneapolis mosque this afternoon,” and quoted Imam Abdisalam Adam as saying, “This outrageous act of violence has no place in Islam the perpetrators of this barbaric act do not share our Islamic values.” Reuters reported that “the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims condemned the raid on the mall as a ‘heinous terror attack’ and called for Kenyans not to divide along sectarian lines.” Moderate voices are emerging at great risk to their own existence and the tide seems to be sweeping out against terrorism as a tactic. But tides change quick in  the Mid-East and a rallying point is all that is sometimes needed to quell the voices of civilization and catapult extremists back into power.

There’s another value in mercy, too. What better way to undermine and repudiate reports of American savagery against muslims than a demonstration of humanity by what the radicals call the “Great Satan”? No better recruiting tool exists for the terrorists than geopolitical  ignorance and glaring examples of perceived overreaction by the militarily juggernaut of the West. Denouncing the West’s claim of life’s inherent sanctity, these extremists point to American’s merciless sense of eye-for-an eye justice for muslims but lax standards for US leaders whom, they claim, exact death on muslim civilians every day directly and through their surrogate states like Israel and Pakistan.  A showing of compassion to a young alleged perpetrator like Tsarnaev takes a lot of venom from the mouths of radicals who demonize every action of the West. That is not to suggest that American justice is premised on the criticisms of radicals but thwarting their designs surely is in furtherance of the cause of overall justice.

And there’s something else, too, that I think those old Romans knew about the quality of mercy apart from its practical virtues. Mercy inures to the benefit of both giver and recipient and has unintended consequences. America’s keen observer of the human condition, Abraham Lincoln, who could wield the terrible swift sword of justice when he had to, once remarked that, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”  Maybe that explains his conciliatory approach to the South cut short by Booth’s derringer that harmed the vanquished region at least as much as it did its intended victim.

Mercy also reveals an often hidden or disregarded bond between members of the species that points up the uniqueness of our existence. The cosmologist Carl Sagan put it this way:

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

That perspective doesn’t mean mindless sentimentality calling for the exoneration of young Tsarnaev from responsibility for his nefarious actions. Rather, it means we as a society recognize the value of mercy walking hand-in-hand with justice. Our boy terrorist deserves the full measure of Western justice tempered by the principle that virtues like mercy define us ever as much as our commitment to justice.

Sources:  Boston Globe; US News; National Post

~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

46 thoughts on “The Quality of Mercy: What Price Justice?”

  1. Mark Esposito, have you every know our government to lie to us? What makes you think that they are not lying to us about this? Have you researched the Boston Bombings beyond what the government told us? If you did, you would see that their backpacks were a different color and because of the shape of the packs could not be full of shrapnel and high explosives but the pictures of members of The Craft Security team backpacks that the FBI showed us certainly could have been. 260 people horribly wounded? Have you looked at the pictures of the bombing sites? Maybe, 50-60 people were wounded. The FBI’s first suspect was from Saudi Arabia, Mrs. Obama visited him in the hospital, then Kerry spoke with a Saudi official, then the suspect was returned to Saudi Arabia. Next suspects were two guys but just as the FBI was about to announce who they were, the FBI discovered one of them had been killed two months before. Then they announced it was the two Tsarnaev brothers. And there is a many, many, many other things that makes the government story stink to high heaven. In case you don’t know, the government only tells us what they want us to believe. Become a critical thinker…..question and think for yourself!

    1. If RuthieTruthie or anybody else has exculpatory evidence they are free to provide it to Tsarnaev’s defense counsel. That’s why we have jury trials and a presumption of innocence, the government has to prove its case. If it turns out guilt isn’t proven then this whole discussion about penalty has no relevance to this particular case–even if it is useful in helping people to think about what should be done with convicted bombers.

  2. Interesting how keeping him caged for life, which may be quite a long one because of his age, is considered merciful, but a swift and relatively painless killing is not.

    1. It’s so interesting to me that nearly all the above commentators seem totally convinced of Mr. Tsarnaev’s guilt. I am not by any means certain that his involvement was other than as a “patsy” to lead the investigation away from the real killers.

      A good investigator will never begin with a preconceived notion of who has committed a crime. All possibilities must be carefully considered, all evidence carefully weighed and examined. Mr. Tsarnaev is entitled to a presumption of innocence. I do wonder whether he will get a fair trial–on the whole, I rather doubt it.

      1. Maybe he’s a patsy, maybe he’s not. However, you are right about the fair trial. It is exceedingly unlikely that he would be found not guilty. The nature of the crime is such that the public must be satisfied, and an acquittal would mean that the authorities missed finding the real killer, either because they didn’t find (or screwed up) sufficient evidence against Mr. Tsarnaev, or they focused on him and thus ignored other suspects. The public won’t stand for that and folks might not be reelected. When I studied torts, the textbook had a great chapter on medical malpractice describing dream and nightmare defendants and plaintiffs. As much as we like to claim otherwise, we are swayed by emotion far more than logic. The book describes the problem of having to sue a Dr. Kildare or Dr. Marcus Welby (of course, we can update those names now from Grey’s Anatomy)- having a defendant who is pretty and articulate and charismatic is a problem for the prosecution, just as having a defendant who is at the top of his or her field but comes across as a lump is for the defense. Why else would defense lawyers make their long-haired, tattoo-covered, leather-jacket wearing defendants shave, cut their hair, and put on suits and ties? There are also certain crimes, such as child porn or child molestation or nowadays, terrorism, in which guilt or innocence don’t matter to the public, because the accusation is enough to stain the defendant for life. State governments certainly don’t care about not guilty verdicts, because the accusation of child molestation can get you put on a watch list and there may be no way to be taken off of it, meaning you will be banned from certain jobs or even volunteer positions merely because you were accused of sexually abusing a child, even if the accuser admits it was entirely fabricated. There are certain crimes the public wants punished whether or not the accused actually did something, because “you never know, and he wouldn’t have been accused if there wasn’t something to it, maybe not this time, but who knows what he got away with before he got caught?” It wouldn’t matter if the evidence showed the accused was actually on the moon at the time in some people’s minds. In the first X-Files movie, one of Mulder’s informants, played by Martin Landau, told Mulder that he knew he was being investigated and would be accused of a crime for which you could never be innocent in the public eye, and it would be either child molestation or child porn, and he’d be killed during an escape attempt. Consider that: by accusing him of child molestation or child porn, it makes no difference what evidence he has of conspiracy or malfeasance, because that evidence will be dismissed because of the nature of the crime he was accused of. The whistleblowing evidence will be ignored by the media because child sex abuse stories generate more ratings. A prosecutor that examined the evidence on such a high-profile case and declared that there was no case would be fired if appointed or laughed at at election time. Based only on the evidence provided by the media, of course Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty. The nature of the crime means that a lot of the evidence will be hidden by “national security”, particularly exculpatory evidence. And it won’t matter, because the public wants “justice”, not justice.

Comments are closed.