Who Deserves Compassion?

Considerations on the Eve of a Terrorist’s Trial

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is scheduled to begin in January, a year and nine months after the then nineteen-year-old lay bleeding in a stranger’s boat in a backyard surrounded by police. This was just after he and his brother Tamerlan detonated two pressure cookers at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring 260 more. Tamerlan died in the shootout with police, but I’ve been haunted by Dzhokhar ever since. At the time I was too afraid to say that I felt sad for him; I knew that voicing my sadness for a person who committed an atrocity would be seen as misguided and offensive.

One of my friends, braver than me, confessed on Facebook that her heart was breaking for the boy. Her update invited several strong reactions along these lines: “That [monster/scumbag/worthless sack of shit] doesn’t deserve compassion.”

Compassion is defined as “empathy; consciousness of another’s distress or suffering along with the desire to alleviate it.” Compassion for all human beings is a main tenet of humanism, and while this looks pretty good on paper, practicing it consistently can be a real challenge. How do you feel compassion toward those who intentionally cause suffering? How do you empathize with someone who has done something you’d never do?

Empathy requires a common ground; if people only deserve compassion based on their actions, then we can hardly expect ourselves or others to feel it toward all human beings. Extending it to everyone would require a shift in focus from action to something shared and underlying.

Simone de Beauvoir described human beings as a paradoxical mixture of subject and object. As subjects, we’re free and responsible for our choices. We transcend our current selves, the limitations around us, and the present moment with our chosen plans and projects.

But our ability to transcend is not total. We’re affected by space, time and situations in our lives. As affected, there is an object component to ourselves. There are even extreme—and rare—situations (born into a North Korean prison, for example) that strip us of all freedom, rendering us primarily objects. However, the vast majority of us maintain some level of responsibility for our actions; there’s a kernel of freedom behind our choices. Common constraining situations don’t force, but rather encourage us not to transcend their trajectories.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir describes different aspects of women’s situations that make it hard for them to regard themselves, and thus to behave, as subjects. Throughout the book she oscillates between: 1) scolding women for their complicity with their assigned roles, and 2) adopting a more compassionate tone by acknowledging that many pervasive elements in women’s lives—from the way they’re dressed as children to the rights they’re denied—strongly encourage them to behave as objects. De Beauvoir values transcendence, but she doesn’t simply write off as worthless those who fail to transcend. Rather, she acknowledges the obstacles in their paths, and therefore exhibits compassion toward women who do not behave as subjects.

I think the subject/object view of human beings can serve as a common ground for us all. We don’t pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have histories, and the paths we take are, at the very least, rendered more probable by the past that led up to them.

As the story of the Tsarnaev brothers unfolded, juxtaposing Dzhokhar’s canned terrorist rhetoric and heinous acts with the kind, laid-back, pot-smoking teenage boy his friends, teachers, and neighbors knew and loved, it became clear that Dzhokhar was not born a monster. He became what he is. (The detailed report written by Janet Reitman for the July 2013 issue of Rolling Stone lends valuable insight here; sadly, widespread controversy concerning the magazine’s choice of cover photo led to a mass boycott.) What’s more, Dzhokhar was nineteen years old, a highly impressionable age at which a little knowledge can seem like certainty, and a rash act can seem like the ticket to a meaningful existence.

I’ve worked out my feelings toward the young man who has haunted me for a year and a half. I feel compassion toward the boy he was before he became a terrorist, toward the boy who I believe was still alive, though overshadowed, inside the boat that day. I think all people deserve compassion because we all live out the struggle within and against coercive situations, and this struggle is harder for the young.

I’ve encountered two common reasons people express for being offended when someone has compassion toward perpetrators of heinous acts: 1) compassion for perpetrator and compassion for victim are mutually exclusive; and 2) compassion excuses all culpability.

First, to acknowledge that someone who causes suffering has suffered something himself—experiences that encouraged inhumanity—doesn’t put the suffering of victim and perpetrator on par with one another. Compassion involves a desire to alleviate suffering; in the case of the terrorist, the suffering I want to alleviate is the situation that encouraged the person to become what he or she is. Compassion is an experience of empathy based on the understanding that who we are is partly determined by situations in our lives. It’s a confrontation with the terrifying thought that, if any one of us lived Dzhokhar’s life, we might, might, have done something similar.

Second, there’s no precise scale on which to weigh the degree of a person’s responsibility against the influence of situation. It’s hard to tell how heavily object-Dzhokhar factored in. But both his subject and object selves were present at the time of his crimes, and the subject deserves punishment.

I ask that we acknowledge the object-self of those who commit heinous acts. We can work on cultivating empathy founded on our common experience as affected actors, as limited transcenders. Once we accept that those who do evil things are human beings who became what they are, we can begin to look at how that happened. Then, we can work on eradicating situations that encourage inhumanity. Most importantly, I ask that we not set up taboos around compassion.

I think Dzhokhar deserves compassion. I also think he deserves to be locked up for life, filled with remorse.