My new essay on the death penalty has just appeared in the Chronicle. To read the whole thing, go here.
...If Tsarnaev is killed, it will be in the name of toughness on terrorism, yet it may also breathe new life into an otherwise moribund practice.
In Tsarnaev’s ancestral homeland, Chechnya, extrajudicial capital punishment, as well as torture and imprisonment, is practiced with impunity. It is taken for granted that the state, as embodied in the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, has power over the lives and deaths of its citizens. It is thus not surprising that Kadyrov, as well as Tsarnaev’s mother, denounced the trial as a setup by the American government. In Chechnya it is simply assumed that the death penalty is always political.
That perspective, however heavy with the contradictions of conspiracy theory, gets at a truth about Tsarnaev’s case that many Americans miss. It was said at the time of the attack that what we had witnessed at the marathon’s finish line in Boston was not so much another September 11 as "Beslan meets Columbine," referring to both the 2004 Islamist siege of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, and the 1999 siege by two teenagers of a high school in Colorado. The former case is supposed to be unambiguously political, the other a symptom of social pathology. The Tsarnaev brothers were able to hybridize the two species of violence because of their status as both "typical American boys" and immigrants from a region known to produce Islamist terrorists.
To make Tsarnaev’s crime worthy of a death sentence, the prosecution emphasized the political dimension of it. And an important element of the politicization of Tsarnaev’s deeds has been the racialization of his person.
The irony was lost on most Americans that an actual Caucasian was on trial in the United States for murder, while the success of the prosecution’s strategy hinged on portraying the defendant as something other than Caucasian, in the strange sense in which that term is used in American racial discourse. It had to be shown that Tsarnaev was, in some way or other, brown. For him to be brown, in the way that was sought, meant imbuing him with the sort of soul whose violence is a species of terror. True, in the bloody note that he scrawled during the manhunt, Tsarnaev speaks of martyrdom, and of his victims as "collateral damage" comparable to Muslims killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in their own scribblings, the Columbine killers spoke of Timothy McVeigh, of Waco, of Vietnam. The personal is political, as has been noted in other contexts. History flows through lost boys.
The crimes for which Tsarnaev was sentenced were committed in Massachusetts, a state that repealed the death penalty in 1984. But he was tried on federal charges and is expected to meet his end in the same place McVeigh met his, the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
The death penalty may be sputtering out at the state level, but it can still be imposed from above. When it comes to capital punishment, the U.S. government adheres to international norms recognized and valued principally by its declared enemies. America stands with the warlords, whose reigns depend on the regular demonstration of power over life and death.