By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
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
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.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor