We should seek justice for the Boston bombings, but not revenge
Last Friday evening, shortly after the capture of the presumed bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, people spilled into the streets of Watertown, Mass., to applaud the public safety officers who had successfully conducted the manhunt and brought the eventual siege to a conclusion. Relief and gratitude combined in a raucous, flag-waving demonstration that warmed hearts across the country and provided a welcome counterpoint to four days of grief and tension. It was a week unlike any other in the nearly four hundred-year history of Boston.
On Patriots’ Day, April 15, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and scores horribly injured. The investigation that followed moved quickly, and on Thursday evening police released photos of the two Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzokhar. Overnight Friday they shot an MIT campus policeman, carjacked an SUV, and led police on a cinematic car chase that ended in Watertown, a couple of miles from downtown Boston. Tamerlan was killed, another policeman was wounded, Dzokhar was suddenly in the wind and the city was put into an unprecedented lockdown. Long hours passed until finally, around 6:00 pm, the suspect was captured – critically wounded, but alive – and the order went out: “lockdown lifted.”
It takes a lot to get Americans into the streets to celebrate, especially for something that has nothing to do with sports. The emotions that spontaneously propelled people out of their homes last Friday were entirely appropriate and thoroughly human. But the dangerous thing about human passion is that it can turn dark in a moment. As soon as the immediate threat abates, relief and gratitude can give way to anger and the desire for revenge. Last Wednesday, while the manhunt in Boston was still ongoing, the crowd at a Bruins game sang the national anthem with evident pride and sadness, but no trace of bitterness. By Saturday, the crowd at Fenway Park reserved its loudest cheers not for the national anthem, but for slugger David Ortiz’s profane cry, “This is our %$&#ing city!” And by Monday, talk radio programs in Boston were fielding calls that laid collective guilt at the feet of all Muslims and demanded their civil liberties be curtailed.
Those callers were effectively egged on by national political figures eager to see the bombings as a new front in the amorphous “war on terror” that has been ongoing since at least 2001. Several politicians and pundits have called for Dzokhar Tsarnaev to be designated as an “enemy combatant” and remanded to Guantanamo Bay for “interrogation.” Already, authorities have waived the reading of Tsarnaev’s Miranda rights, thereby distorting the “public safety exception” created by a 1984 case, New York v. Quarles, which allowed police to ask about immediate, on-the-scene threats. But Dzokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen captured on American soil. Either he has all the Constitutional rights of every American citizen – including the presumption of innocence – or none of us have those rights. That’s what the phrase “equal justice under law” means.
Let’s be clear: police should track down every lead and bring everyone involved in the Boston Marathon bombings to justice. And if, along the way, they discover evidence of additional plots, they should exploit that evidence to apprehend and prosecute the plotters. But they should do all that within the limits of the law, which is their charge. Some will argue that these are exceptional circumstances, that the Marathon bombings constitute an act of war in an international struggle against those who “hate our freedoms.” If that is true – and that remains an open question – then the worst response would be to abandon those freedoms, which are vouchsafed by the impartial and dispassionate application of law. Our commitment to the rule of law is tested most rigorously in those exceptional periods when it is the most difficult to keep. It goes without saying that human justice is imperfect, both in its scope and in its application. But if the righteous anger Americans feel over the Marathon bombings overwhelms the supreme value we attach to the law, imperfect as it is, then we are all imperiled, and the consequences will be far worse than any damage terrorists can inflict. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Therefore, in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed, for, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says, ‘a man is the most noble of animals if he be perfect in virtue, so is he the lowest of all if he be severed from law and justice’; because man can use his reason to devise means of satisfying his lusts and evil passions, which other animals are unable to do” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 95, 1; cf. Aristotle, Politics I, 2).
For Catholics, the requirements of the law of love extend far beyond even those of the civil law. We are called not just to obey civil magistrates and the laws they enforce, but also to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In the hours after Dzokhar Tsarnaev was caught, someone on tweeted the following message: “Jesus said to pray for your enemies: There is a 19 y/o man just taken into custody who has injuries. You know what to do.” It is difficult enough to pray for irritating people we know, but for a murderer we don’t? And yet, we know “what to do.” We cannot forgive a trespass not committed against us. That right belongs to God and the victims. But we can and should pray for Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s repentance and conversion, for recovery from his wounds, and that the civil authorities and those he encounters during his incarceration will treat him humanely. He is not only our fellow-citizen. He is our brother, made in the image and likeness of God.
On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish Muslim, shot Blessed Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. In the aftermath of the shooting, the Holy Father asked all Catholics to “pray for my brother, whom I have sincerely forgiven.” That forgiveness was demonstrated two years later when the Pope visited Ağca in prison. Over the years, the Pontiff developed something of a friendship with Ağca, even meeting his mother in 1987. In all those years, the Holy Father never asked for Ağca’s sentence to be commuted. He respected the demands of the civil law, and had seen for himself that Ağca was treated humanely in prison. But the Pope forgave his assailant in his own heart, and tried to repair the psychic wounds that had driven Ağca to make an attempt on his life in the first place. In this, as in so many things, the Holy Father was a model for Christians, and especially for us, living in these days.
Let us by all means seek justice for Dzokhar Tsarnaev and all those like him, in accordance with the rule of law. But let us also guard our hearts against anger, hatred, and the spirit of revenge.