Judge Channels Nation’s Scorn During Tsarnaev Sentencing

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Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev officially received his death sentence Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Boston. In the course of formally delivering the will of the jury, US District Judge George O’ Toole invoked powerful language that seemed to perfectly capture the anguish, contempt, and defiance felt by the public on whose behalf he meted out justice.

This particular sequence of his statement, excerpted from the court transcript, seems worthy of sharing and discussing:

One of Shakespeare’s characters observes: “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” So it will be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Whenever your name is mentioned, what will be remembered is the evil you have done. No one will remember that your teachers were fond of you. No one will mention that your friends found you funny and fun to be with. No one will say you were a talented athlete or that you displayed compassion in being a Best Buddy or that you showed more respect to your women friends than your male peers did. What will be remembered is that you murdered and maimed innocent people and that you did it willfully and intentionally. You did it on purpose.

You tried to justify it to yourself by redefining what it is to be an innocent person so that you could convince yourself that Martin Richard was not innocent, that Lingzi Lu was not innocent, and the same for Krystle Campbell and Sean Collier and, therefore, they could be, should be killed. It was a monstrous self-deception. To accomplish it, you had to redefine yourself as well. You had to forget your own humanity, the common humanity that you shared with your brother Martin and your sister Lingzi.

It appears that you and your brother both did so under the influence of the preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki and others like him. It is tragic, for your victims and now for you, that you succumbed to that diabolical siren song. Such men are not leaders but misleaders. They induced you not to a path to glory but to a judgment of condemnation.

In Verdi’s opera Otello, the evil Iago tries to justify his malice. “Credo in un Dio crudel,” he sings. “I believe in a cruel god.” Surely someone who believes that God smiles on and rewards the deliberate killing and maiming of innocents believes in a cruel god. That is not, it cannot be, the god of Islam. Anyone who has been led to believe otherwise has been maliciously and willfully deceived.”

O’ Toole, known to be tolerant of neither rambling lawyers nor inefficient practices in his courtroom, economically wove several important themes into his words without making them unduly subtle or exceedingly ornate.

In admonishing Tsarnaev that his character was to be eternally damned despite moments of gentleness, O’ Toole reminded us all, using the condemned as a vivid prop, that malice often lurks behind apparent civility, that “one may smile and smile and be a villain,” and that our system of justice will not be fooled into favoring claims of underlying benevolence over the inalterable consequences of unlawful acts.

O’ Toole also took care to diagram and denounce Tsarnaev’s radicalization, making it clear that claiming to be under a spell of extremism is no bar to culpability. This also served to distinguish terrorism, signaling that Tsarnaev’s condemnation is not a statement against Islam, but against his decision to side with and advance the evil designs of hate-peddlers falsely claiming its mantle. 

O’ Toole’s words are about more than one sentencing in one criminal case, however infamous. His words are also about extracting maximum societal value from an individual justice transaction. In just a few hundred weighty words, O’ Toole affirms the dignity of victims, confirms the agency and accountability of perpetrators, and distills the fundamental value of the rule of law.  

By showing that our system of justice affords the same rights and obligations to everyone, even and especially those whose acts are almost too repugnant to fathom, we lift the rule of law above our value judgments, making it our sole trusted arbiter of justice. By demonstrating that it is capable of producing a just outcome in any set of circumstances, we engender confidence that it deserves such a high perch, and remains our best bulwark against the forces of chaos and incivility.

As Judge O’ Toole’s words imply, our best defense against terrorism is our way of life. Despite being battered in recent times, it remains intact. The Tsarnaev trial, including this final and most solemn episode, serves as a defiant gesture aimed at anyone who believes our way of life can be degraded by targeting the innocent. Such cowardice will never  prevail so long as we sustain and continually strengthen our system and the institutions that comprise it. 

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