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. I think he should be sentenced to serve consecutive life terms and should be Bernie Madoff’s cell partner.

  2. The heinous nature of this crime fits the purpose of the death penalty. That said, I think execution would be wrong in this case, because it furthers the cause of the terrorist. Not only by playing into his narrative, but because it will create more media hype about him and his cause. Sentence him to the inglorious anonymity of life in a maximum security prison, cleaning toilets.

  3. “They have an expression [in Baluchistan] — ‘If it takes me ten centuries to kill my enemy, I will wait 1000 years for revenge.’ This is about the Crusades. This is a 1000 year war of vengeance that these guys have been waiting for, to try and punish the West for the time when the Knight Templars came down from Europe and sacked the councils of the Islamic princes in the 11th century
    –From Peter Lance’s book

  4. The cops did their very best to make sure that the younger Tsarnaev would not be able to tell any tales. Guided by heat sensors, they riddled the hull of the boat with bullets. Somehow, the young man survived.


    When are the people going to STOP falling for the lies told them by the corporation?

    When are the people going to STOP being led to the water that is poisoned. and begin THINKING for themselves?

    if you havent seen the real pictures of the staged bombing in boston click the link above and be sure to compare them to the pictures shown you by the msm and see just how they managed to fool you time and again……. oh and dont forget to look up crisis actors. they are hiring for others to play the same parts as those who played in the rest of the fabricated terror attacks

  6. I have never been able to see any logic in telling people it is not nice to kill people so I will kill you to prove it.

  7. If Tsarnaev is convicted, his fate should depend upon the facts elicited in the trial. If the bombing was in fact a “false flag” operation planned in cold blood, the guilty parties should pay with their lives.

  8. @Kraaken “WE do the same thing.”

    I think I can distinguish on the one hand intentionally targeting non combatant civilians and on the other hand hitting civilians through technical problems, difficulties of war or malfunction.

    Our weapons are so effective, if we were doing the same thing, my guess is there would be few civilian left in the war zones.

    I would argue it is pretty clear we are not doing the same thing. That does not imply that what we are doing is acceptable.

    I think it is vital to recognize and maintain the distinction between intentionally targeting civilians which by treaty is a crime and inadvertently hitting civilians, which depending on circumstance, is not.

    In the insanity that is war, one of the few advances we have made is to place civilians off limits. I don’t think it helps to protect civilians when we obscure the difference between accidentally hitting civilians and targeting civilians.

    If the question is are we the same as terrorist and militaries that intentionally target civilian populations I think we have strong evidence that we are not.

    If the question is can we and should we do better at minimizing civilian causalities, I don’t know. But we certainly have the obligation to pose the question and find out.

    1. There is a difference between cold-blooded murder and self defense. Execution is cold blooded murder, no matter how you slice it, without heat of passion, and the executioner is not defending himself. If you believe there are circumstances that justify execution, can you also believe there are circumstances that drive one to murder? And if you can, would you still side with hypocrisy?

  9. It it difficult for me to make nuanced comment on this case because I oppose the death penalty. So long as society has the resources to hold someone with essentially zero chance of escape then I see no justification for the death penalty.

    But I did want to bring up concerns I have regarding government action. I don’t believe that the government and terrorist are equal – absolutely not.

    But I don’t see how anyone cannot be concerned when we see entire neighborhoods locked down and searched by what are effectively light infantry. I don’t see how anyone can avoid feeling uncomfortable when an associate of the perpetrators and potential witness is shot by an FBI agent during an interview – with no other person present.

    In one sense these examples are the price of terrorism. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there are not better policies, procedures and tactics. But I think there are few who will raise a critical voice to the government response because fear of the terrorist is so great.

  10. I actually expected nothing better from the DoJ. What happened in Boston was horrible, but we sanction the same kind of random violence and murder when we allow drones to strike. How many civilians have been killed by OUR drones? Men, women children, grandparents attending weddings? Having a family celebration? How many of their 8 year old children have been blown apart by OUR military drones? Sorry, Mark and all of the other commentators. Until our hands are clean, we have no right to affect such horror and surprise. We have lost all right to make such ‘moral judgments’ while WE do the same thing.

  11. Interesting, how you begin with “alleged” and what this young man is “charged” with, but lapse into an assumption that his guilt is a proven fact. There are too many weird inconsistencies in the official narrative of this affair, which you apparently have swallowed hook, line and sinker. PERHAPS some of these inconsistencies and anomalies will be resolved if Tsarnaev ever actually comes to trial. I fear that this will never happen, however–that he will be found hanging in his cell someday before a jury can be selected. For the record, I DON’T believe that he wrote the alleged inscription on the inside of the boat. Reports of his engaging police in an “exchange of gunfire” from the boat appear questionable given other reports that he was UNARMED. The narrative that he ran over his brother with a car are called into question by video footage appearing to show the brother being walked alive and naked into a police cruiser. I suspect that any evidence conflicting with the official narrative will disappear before Tsarnaev is scheduled to appear in court. It was interesting that Sen. John McCain called for not even giving Tsarnaev a trial. If this young man should somehow survive to be tried, I predict that his defense will be hamstrung and prevented from presenting any evidence that this may have been a “false flag” operation.

  12. randy,
    Regarding the 23 hour lockdown. It depends on the inmate and a risk assessment by the prison staff in charge of placement within the prison.

    I suspect that if convicted and gets less than the death penalty, he will be housed in the protective custody unit. PC is a tough facility in any prison. Inmates are kept locked down 23 hours a day. They get one hour out for recreation, exercise and visiting with other inmates who can be let out at the same time. Therein is the rub. The staff have a list of who cannot be let out at the same time as others. For example rival gang members, or inmates who have made specific threats don’t get out at the same time as potential victims.

    The typical PC unit is only one step lower than the maximum security solitary confinement unit. On PC, it is possible to have two or three inmates to a cell, as long as they have at least 50 square feet of space for each inmate. US District Court Judge William C. Keady ruled on the cell size in GATES v. COLLIER 407 F.Supp. 1117 (1975)

  13. I have said here many times I don’t believe in the death penalty. But, I don’t want to hold hands and talk about how this shitbird deserves compassion. I will give him mercy, nothing more!

  14. Paul sez: “If convicted, 20-30 years behind bars, then if he can, find a life to live where he can contemplate his actions and explain them to anyone he meets.”

    Paul, that might work in theory, but not so well in practice. I do parole evaluations as part of my regular work. Risk assessment is one of the most difficult types of evaluations in all of forensic psychology. The psychologist is asked to give odds on future behaviors.

    Offenders who commit crimes for ideological reasons tend to not change and have a remarkable lack of insight. As an example, I give you Sirhan Sirhan, who confessed, and was convicted of killing Robert Kennedy. At every one of his parole hearings so far, he has been completely unrepentant, still convinced of the rightness of assassinating a presidential candidate.

  15. My major concern about cost of LWOP is what I have heard corrections officers/wardens say in interviews, that the lack of the possibility of parole gives prisoners no incentive to not do the most damage they can in the prison including murder of other prisoners/staff.

  16. Death penalty = revenge = barbarism. There really is no excuse for giving into the worst in us when the worst happens to us, not when we still have a choice.

  17. leejcarroll, My estimate of LWOP costing more than execution was cited as negative factor to my preference for LWOP. I have looked at the results of some studies indicating a current federal cost of around $30K/year, which would lead on a proforma basis to about $1.5M in this case. But even if cost were the deciding factor, which it is not, one would have to consider whether the cost estimates included all costs and agree on a methodology to compare costs incurred over 4-5 years with those incurred over 50+ years.

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