Humans, Not Monsters: The Boston Bombings, the Aurora Shootings, and the Death Penalty

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison (CA).

Recently, two high-profile criminal trials have drawn the focus of the national media: the sentencing trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, also known as the “Boston Marathon bomber,” and the trial of James Holmes, who killed twelve people in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. Both cases have no doubt drawn attention for the horrifying nature of the crimes they convey, as they bring to light the darker, more destructive aspects of human nature. However, both cases also provide us the opportunity to rise above our baser aspects and support human rights and justice, even in the face of unspeakable evil.

In both trials, the fact that Tsarnaev and Holmes committed crimes is hardly in doubt. What is in question is the type of sentence that each of these young men deserve. Tsarnaev and his brother planted bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured hundreds of others. Holmes opened fire in a Colorado movie theater during the premier of the film The Dark Knight Rises. Both are responsible for the death and maiming of multiple people, and both have committed acts that seem incomprehensible to many.

And yet, Tsarnaev and Holmes are still both human. Tsarnaev’s defense, for instance, highlighted his parents’ divorce and return to Russia, which left him adrift and vulnerable to his brother’s extremist religious views. In Holmes’s case, the defense is arguing that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Holmes, they claim, was severely mentally ill and suffered from delusions that prevented him from fully understanding his own actions. Whether these arguments are convincing enough to their respective juries to avoid the death penalty for Tsarnaev or Holmes remains to be seen, but they do remind us that there are multiple ways of looking at every crime and that we must not let our initial shock at their actions override our capacity for empathy.

When we dismiss individuals facing the death penalty for serious crimes as monsters who are less than human, we are forgetting the central tenant of humanism—that all human beings have an inherent worth, purely because they are human. The American Humanist Association’s Board of Directors has repeatedly voiced its opposition to capital punishment on the grounds that putting an individual to death is an irreversible act and that governments that condone capital punishment are ethically unsound for engaging in the taking of life, an act that they claim to condemn. Killing Tsarnaev or Holmes also will not bring back their victims or undo the harm they have caused to the loved ones of those they murdered or injured. In fact, Bill and Denise Richards, family members of one of the Boston marathon bombing victims, state that they do not want the death penalty for Tsarnaev because his death could never bring back the son that they lost. Instead, they urge other victims of this tragedy and Americans everywhere to look to the future instead of fixating on a past that can never be changed. “We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future—for us, for Boston, and for the country,” they write in the Boston Globe.

The plea of the Richards family should be familiar to humanists, as it echoes our own convictions that we must not let the darker side of human nature rule the day. Instead, we must rise above desires for retribution that are based in fear and take the moral high ground by advocating against capital punishment. The lives lost in Boston and Aurora can never be brought back, no matter what happens to Tsarnaev or Holmes. Both surely deserve some type of punishment, but their deaths will not change the past. Though we cannot undo the bombings in Boston or the shootings in Aurora, we can shape our future. So let us shape it into one in which every human being is recognized as such and not demonized and dismissed, no matter what s/he has done. By taking a stand against the death penalty, we are demonstrating that we do not condone the taking of any life, whether by a murder or by the justice system, and in doing so, we are making a stronger statement against the actions of Tsarnaev, Holmes, and those like them than capital punishment ever could.