We have a choice to make, and that choice will define each of us as a person, and who we are as a country.
We experienced an act of terror last week that traumatized our nation and once again left us feeling vulnerable. The bombings in Boston pierced our innocence; our sense of safety. It left in its wake hundreds of families that now have to struggle with the emotional trauma created by the loss of family members or friends; communities that will have to find ways to live with the realities of death and grief; and physical and emotional wounds that will take a lifetime to heal.
Once again terrorism has wounded our nation. Once again our illusion of safety has been riddled and torn apart by violence. As we struggle to find our footing again, our hearts and compassion reach out to all of those wounded and traumatized by the terrible violence.
And once again, we seek justice. But this time our need for justice is calling us down a different path; a path that calls us to wrestle with a choice that will ultimately define who we are as a nation, and just as importantly, it will illuminate clearly the values that define each of us personally.
On one hand, we can demand justice and prosecute 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a monster that deserves to die. We can seek our revenge by killing him. We can label him as unspeakably evil and demand the death penalty.
Our outrage and demands for justice, our judgment of him as a monster may help us feel good—–and emotionally insulate us from any responsibility for condoning the political, economic, and religious violence that created and shaped this young man, his brother, his family, and his nation—–but it would only reflect our own extremist thinking; a form of self-righteous national violence that would, in this case, be directed at a 19 year old young man. If our pursuit of justice takes this path, we are in danger of becoming the very voice of violence and evil we are seeking to remove from the world.
On the other hand, we have an opportunity to offer compassion to 19-year-old young man whose only family in our country was an older brother whom he loved and trusted; a brother who betrayed that trust and led him down a path that would destroy his life.
- A 19 year old young man who came from a family and nation torn apart by two decades of unspeakable violence, death, and loss—–a nation whose people were driven from their homes by violence and forced to live as refugees in other countries.
- A young man whose uncle called him a loser and hadn’t talked to him in seven or eight years.
- A young man whose divorced parents abandoned him in America and went back to their home in Dagestan.
- A young man whose father, when told of what had happened to his sons, expressed no sense of loss or concern for them and angrily assumed that they had been set up or framed.
When reporters asked mental health providers how a person who was so well thought of by his friends could commit such act of violence, they said he was obviously hiding this darker side. What they didn’t say was that every one of us has a darker side that we are careful to hide from others. That’s what humans do.
The only real difference between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and us is the degree of violence that wounded his family; a violence that scared his soul and ultimately made him emotionally vulnerable to his brother’s ideologies and betrayal.
When we use either /or thinking, it feels like justice and compassion are opposites; that justice would not be served if we offer this young man too much compassion. But I would suggest we also have a third choice——the middlepath of justice and compassion.
We need to hold Dzhokhar responsible for the choices he made, and the actions he took that brought violence to others; the recognition that we all need to face the consequences of our choices.
But we can also recognize and acknowledge that this young man is just one more victim of a world that all of us are helping to create whenever we condone or in anyway support violence in the world. We need to hold him responsible for his choices, but we can also make space for him inside our hearts and offer him the care and kindness we would offer any wounded child. We can show him and the world that we care for him; that we understand that he too is the victim of violence, and that he too needs to be emotionally held and cared for as a person wounded by unspeakable violence.
The world will be watching how we treat this young man—–and it will show them clearly who we are as a people, and what we stand for as a nation. We cannot let the angry, judgmental extremists that would label this young man as an unspeakable monster ultimately define the soul of our nation. The world has enough extremist thinking. It does not need to experience more from us.
That would be an act of violence and terrorism against those very people who see our nation as a source of hope and light in the world——a tragedy that would dwarf the violence we witnessed in Boston.