an obession with first principles

Life, Death, and Punishment

Posted: Friday Apr 10th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

If you’ve seen any headlines lately you’ve seen that here in Boston the Tsarnaev trial has gone to sentencing. Unsurprisingly, he’s been found guilty of all 30 charges. This is what everyone expected.

I’ve shared a small bit of my own feeling about this whole experience. It touched my life indirectly. The morning of the marathon I biked, with my girlfriend at the time and six friends, the marathon route. We started in Boston and went out to the starting line and back in to the finishing line. We arrived according to our plan at the finish line just before the wheelchair race started. We took a group photo, all our bikes lined up in front of the finish, and we posted it with joy. We rode off to breakfast with two of our friends. Ate, went home. Showered, and went back down to the marathon to watch and support some of the runners. Since we were up at 4AM for our ride, we got tired pretty quick. We went back to Cambridge and took a nap

The constant buzzing of our phones woke us up. People were trying to get in touch with us because they saw our photo at the finish line. We were shocked at the news. I jumped on twitter to learn what I could quickly. We assured everyone we were safe. That was the extent of my personal involvement. But my girlfriend at the time was not so lucky. She lived in Watertown, two streets over from the boat in which Tsarnaev was found. That night she was woken up by gunfire, terrified, and texted me. Again I jumped on twitter to gather as much as I could as fast as I could. I relayed all the info she was able to tell me about what was happening back into twitter. Eventually her and all her roommates were removed by SWAT police from their apartment for over fifteen hours. The travel-ban was lifted, but they had not yet gone back to their apartment.

So many people throughout Boston, and beyond, have been personally touched by the events of that week. And now the city is at the end of it. But, of course, we’re witnessing the vulgar underbelly within peoples hearts and minds about what happened. And many of these people aren’t even in the city proper. The city of Boston is specifically against the death penalty in this case. Only 27% support the death penalty. But throughout twitter and facebook I see the emotion and desire from people to see Jahar killed. I want to examine this thinking specifically.

I think there is a powerful argument to be made that killing Jahar is precisely the same logic that vindicates his and Tamerlan’s actions. It was widely reported that the instigating thoughts and feelings behind Jahar and Tamerlan (whoever took the lead, or followed, is irrelevant in this case) actions were reactionary. Their actions were a response to US led aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, many operations outside US borders were conducted within international norms for military operations. However, very many were not. Countless non-combatants, men, women, and children, were killed both at the hands of US troops and drones. And I do say countless because the Department of Defense conflates the numbers in order to hide the deaths of innocents.

So let us recount that in detail. In their eyes Jahar and Tamerlan witnessed the killing of innocents in countries and lands they felt a solidarity with. And their response was to kill. They killed those in solidarity with the perpetrators. They didn’t need to kill the exact solders or remote drone pilots to get their point across.

Now let us look at those calling for the death of Jahar. Some want him to be sentenced to death by a court. Others literally want him dropped off in Dorchester to be killed (we’ll ignore the inherent racism in that comment by Massachusetts residents). Notably, Massachusetts has no death penalty. Which is largely (in my opinion) why this course went Federal. None of the crimes crossed borders, everything took place within Massachusetts. Someone wanted blood. That is to say, people saw Jahar and Tamerlan killing innocents they felt a solidarity with. And their response was to kill. They have in custody the perpetrators and they want to kill them.

Is this not the exact same logic that motivated Jarar and Tamerlan? Are we at all different from them when we call for their heads? I submit we are not.

There are many Americans who call into question the drone programs and the death they deal. At every turn these Americans are called un-patriotic. But the very same “patriotism” that “real Americans” evidence to defend these drone programs is the same emotion and feeling the resulted in two actual American citizens — let it never be questioned that both Jahar and Tamerlan are real US citizens, who participated fully in our country and the state of Massachusetts — killing other citizens who triumphed in the death of people they felt solidarity with?

As Americans are we fully incapable of believing that our borders truly are porous? That people who live here have ties to many other places around the world? And that even as Americans we are inevitably tied up integrally with the rest of the world through politics and economics — despite the fact that some of us, like myself, have never even left our shores? The fact I’ve never been out of the country is irrelevant. We are all tied up together. And to imagine that we live in some kind of pre-WWI isolationism is a sick joke.

Do we realize that the exact forces that are compelling us to kill Jahar are the exact forces that compelled Jahar and Tamerlan to kill people?

If we realize that then there are some repercussions. To me it means that we are not ruled by law. And as I observe all the facets of American life this is unsurprising. There are so many elements of American life that refuse to be ruled by law — the execution of black Americans by police is the first, but no where near the last. I don’t honestly believe that we really believe we are ruled by law. The notion that we are a nation ruled by laws is a fanciful tale we believe and reify consistently while actively denying through our lives. If we believed we were ruled by law we’d know how many laws we could be arrested for just living our daily life. But we don’t — until police feel like imposing those laws on us. And then we react “Wait, there is a law against that?!”. If we really believed that we were ruled by laws why would we continually see the same reaction by the media when massive corporations are brought up on charges, whether financial corruption, environmental disaster, or otherwise. And we react with “Well that company will never be found guilty”, while the CEOs and managers remain in power to continue their corruption. Blue laws are still on the books from the 19th century that we routinely break every weekend — but they’re still laws. NYPD tried bringing up a 19th century law against masks as a reason to arrest protestors. We all sit idly by. We know with such accuracy that the laws do not matter — the only thing that matters is the monopoly of violence the state has to enforce whatever it wants. You can be arrested for only resisting arrest, without any other charges. You didn’t break the law to be arrested, but you were arrested for not being arrested. This is clearly unlawful. We put up with it. We instinctively understand “This really means that the police didn’t like you, so they arrested you.” This is not law. We know this. We refuse to change it.

I only wish we would tell the truth. If we are not a nation of laws. And we operate on the same logic of death as the people we want to kill — then let us all admit this is about the efficacy and efficiency of our killing apparatus. And we should continue with the fact that our “defense” spending is greater than the next eight countries combined, seven of which are our allies. If we kill them faster we win, otherwise we lose. Let us all admit that is the logic we are operating by. Then let us ask “who is us”? Because I’m not sure we’re all on the same page there. Because I have many friends living abroad. And many friends have family living abroad. And one of these days we’re all going to be touched by the death of someone we’re connected to at the hands of the US death apparatus. While the recent “House of Cards” seasons 3 tried to give a narrative to this by bringing the victim of a US drone into the White House, few Americans are currently dealing with this, and many will. After all, US citizens have already been killed abroad by drones. Which, I shouldn’t have to tell to you, required State Department attention, when black American citizens are killed every day within our borders without being recognized by our government.

I don’t for a minute think this is about punishing Jahar for his actions in the bombing and after the bombing. This is not about punishment. This is not about law. This reaction to Jahar is in the same identical spirit as his actions. Americans are no different than him. After all — he is an American. He went to Rindge and Latin here in Cambridge. He is slightly younger than me and he consumed every song, news and TV show that I ever have. He obviously learned this lawlessness from somewhere. And in my estimation he learned it from us. Because we exhibit this lawlessness every single day. Now we’re doing it again in calling for the death of Jahar. It just reifies and defends his own actions. His actions had nothing to do with law. Our drone killing program has nothing to do with law. We kill civilians every day abroad. Police kill unarmed people in our country every single day. All of this is unlawful. We recognize the monopoly of violence, but we refuse to be honest about it.