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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: To Kill or Not to Kill?

Seeking answers about justice from my late father

Marjorie Ingall
May 20, 2015
The finish line of the Boston Marathon, January 4, 2015. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
The finish line of the Boston Marathon, January 4, 2015. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

My dad was a psychiatrist who loved working with the profoundly mentally ill. In the ‘80s, he ran a community mental health center on a shoestring budget, back when Reagan emptied the sanitariums and promised to fund community-based care for former residents…then didn’t. Dad loved chatting with street people. He volunteered on a medical van for the homeless. He helped talk a shooter off a rooftop in downtown Providence. He testified in insanity cases. He had a column about mental health issues in the Providence Journal.

Dad died in 2004. Last year, in a cardboard box in my mom’s old apartment, I found an essay he wrote. The essay, “To Kill or Not to Kill,” was about why physicians should not participate in executions. I don’t think it was ever published, and I hadn’t known this was a cause he felt strongly about.

As I read it, I thought about recent botched executions in Oklahoma (where an inmate writhed and twitched on a gurney, lifting his head and taking 43 minutes to die) and Arizona (where an inmate took two hours, gasping 660 times in nearly two hours) and wished I could talk to Dad about those cases. I wondered what he’d say about the one that was stopped after the executioners tried for two hours to find a usable vein by reportedly sticking the Ohio prisoner at least 18 times, causing him to scream in agony. (The execution was eventually stopped by the governor, and a US District Judge later ruled that attempting to kill prisoner again would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.)

And now, of course, I wish I could talk to my Dad about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The American Medical Association’s professional guidelines are clear: Doctors should not participate in executions. But participation isn’t formally banned, and a doctor was present during that Oklahoma incident. Some doctors argue they should have the choice: if an execution is inevitable, doctors should get the option of easing suffering along the way.

My dad clearly didn’t agree, answering his own rhetorical question, “Should we exchange our white coats for black hoods?” with a resounding no. “To me, it seems fairly straightforward and simple,” he wrote in the undated piece. “A physician who participates in an execution is doing something unethical, immoral, and wrong. A physician’s task is to alleviate suffering; to bring comfort; to heal, if not to cure.”

But he wasn’t opposed to doctors assisting in euthanasia cases if the patient is competent enough to make the decision to die a painless, dignified death: “This is not an execution. This is not killing. It is consistent with the physician’s obligation to relieve suffering.” (When I was in college, he euthanized our elderly, dying cat, O’Malley, himself.)

Dad used to provide psychiatric care at a group home for troubled youth; what would he have thought of Dzhokhar? A lost boy, acting under a psychotic older brother’s sway? Or a savvy and calculating yet fanatical killer? I’ll never know. When the jury in the federal case returned a death penalty verdict last Friday, I desperately wished I could pick up the phone and ask him.

There’s no question about Tsarnaev’s guilt. But knowing my dad, I don’t think he would have supported the widely held notion that the death penalty will provide closure for victims’ families. Dad had polio as a child and a heart attack at 39; he never expected to reach 60. (He made it to 64.) He knew that life is uncertain. Those who think executing the murderer will make them feel better may be wrong, and may find their lives on hold for a very long time while they wait for “closure.” Those who asked for a life sentence will still acutely feel the pain of loss of loved ones. (One family that asked for life without parole instead of death told the court, “We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul.”) The idea that grief has a clear, bright resolution is a fallacy; we all choose to live life in all its uncertainty and sorrows every day.

Unless he’s murdered in prison, Tsarnaev will be alive for a long time despite this sentence. The Federal government has put executions on hold while it evaluates current practices. The manufacturers of two commonly used death penalty drugs have stopped making them or have refused to allow them to be used in executions. (The manufacturers’ European markets–companies and politicians alike–have vociferously protested against American capital punishment.) According to The Washington Post, states began purchasing untried drugs—which perhaps caused the recent spate of botched executions—from compounding pharmacies unregulated by the FDA, starting in 2011 when the well-tested drugs ran out. They’ve also passed secrecy laws to prevent disclosure of where these new drugs came from.

This wouldn’t have surprised my dad at all. He was the kind of cynic who was really a frustrated idealist. Humans are often vengeful. We often want to kill. We justify our actions and cover over our more ignoble motives. But he wanted us to do better.

His essay dismisses the frequent death-penalty justification, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the Torah, Dad pointed out, that doesn’t always apply. Cain slays his own brother Abel and is cursed and banished to wander the world, but he isn’t executed. Our forefather Abraham is on the verge of sacrificing his beloved son, “but an angel intervenes, crying out against human sacrifice.”

Dad concludes, “The Bible offers many remedies and institutes that are no longer acceptable today. No one today calls for the death penalty for the adulterous woman (the man’s punishment was generally less severe), nor for the stoning of the rebellious son at the city gates. No one calls for the re-establishment of slavery under the laws codified in the Bible. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud codified the dictum ‘an eye for an eye’ to mean ‘the value of an eye for an eye.’” (Tablet’s own Adam Kirsch points out that we no longer stone brides to death for not being a virgin on their wedding night, either!) (And bonus! Those of us who play music and use the oven on the Sabbath are allowed to live, too!)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted two quotations from the Talmud after the Tzarnaev verdict came in, “‘A High Court that executes once in 7 yrs is murderous. R. Eleazar ben Azariah said: once in 70 yrs.’ Mishnah Makkot 1:10.” And, “R. Tarfon & R. Akiva said, ‘If we were members of a High Court, nobody would ever be put to death.’ Mishnah Makkot 1:10.”

Dad would have agreed with Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.