Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: All out of Mercy?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: All out of Mercy? May 21, 2015

For me – and, I suspect, for many people – defense witnesses’ pleas for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life made for a nauseating spectacle. Tsarnaev got the best America can offer – an education, a future, a wide circle of admiring friends. He threw it away to become a cold-blooded killer, a religious fanatic, and a living threat to détente between Muslims and, well, everybody else. So what if, as a toddler, he was so cute that his aunt let him pee in her sink? Big deal if his grade-school teacher can’t help loving him, no matter how naughty he went on to become. From none of this flowing sap does it follow logically that his head deserves to remain on its shoulders.

Nauseating or not, Tsarnaev’s defense meant to exploit a fundamental Christian value. The Latin word misericordia, which appears so often in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, translates into pity and compassion, but also into mercy. In Irish Theological Quarterly, Thomas Ryan defines misericordia as “Being so affected that one moves to alleviate the distress of another.” Get that? Affected. When someone is suffering, Christians are expected to get all emotional.

But for Christians getting all emotional is a complicated matter. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between passions, or “excitement of the soul” – what we would call feelings – and affects, or acts of the will. He conceived of the second as following from the first. In the case of misericordia, affective mercy, or feelings of pity or compassion toward an object, can, if properly directed, become effective mercy, or a positive act of mercy toward the same object. Collapsing the two stages, Fr. John Hardon defines mercy as “the ready willingness to help anyone in need, especially in need of pardon or reconciliation.”

Normally, Thomas Aquinas judged emotions according to their congruence with reason. Feeling sad when good things happen to someone else is envy, a mortal sin and a capital vice. However, Thomas Ryan argues, the Angelic Doctor counted compassion among the emotions that are good in and of themselves, no matter their object. “For Thomas Aquinas,” he writes, “basic humanity requires that we be aware of and recognize what is good in others. It also entails being affected by and responsive to their suffering through compassion.”

The Church teaches that we can – and should — will ourselves into feeling the appropriate things at the appropriate times. In fact, precisely because consequent emotions, the ones we make ourselves feel, result from deliberate acts of will, they’re likelier to increase the goodness of an act than antecedent emotions, which occur naturally. Feelings of compassion, in other words, are most meritorious when we can gin them up only through a hearty moral self-bludgeoning.

Now, Thomas Aquinas never wrote that compassion for a condemned killer’s family – much less for the condemned killer himself – should automatically rescue the criminal from the gallows. As outlaws were “dangerous and infectious” to society, it could be “praiseworthy and advantageous” for society to put them to death. Still, according to Ryan, his interpreter, he believed that “friendship with God means that misericordia’s scope includes those whose suffering is due to their own actions (e.g. the sinner).” Even if right reason won’t permit you to let the bad guy off, you should, at least, feel moved to offer him a sponge soaked in myrrh.

Tsarnaev’s attorneys staked their client’s life on the hope that jurors would feel so affected by the suffering of all Tsarnaev’s friends and relations that they would move to end it, by giving the little goblin life instead of death. Or, failing that, that they’d feel shame for not feeling affected, and – somehow – squeeze just enough pity out of their hearts to act mercifully in the end. It was a long shot – too long, as it turned out.

Policing my interior life is always a grind, but never more so than when I’m supposed to police it for the benefit of a mass murderer. I know I should figure out some way to suffer along with the condemned and his family. Precisely because it’s so hard to do, I know I should prod myself a little. But in the end, I’m lucky if I can talk myself down from blood lust to cold disdain. (I am, after all, a long-distance runner, bound to the victims of this crime in a brotherhood of blisters.)

Well, barring successful appeal, Tsarnaev’s for the needle. Patheos’ Catholic channel recently declared its opposition to capital punishment, so I won’t rock the boat. Still, though I can oppose the death penalty in an abstract, blanket fashion, I cannot force myself to feel anything virtuous toward this particular killer, and I find it galling that this deficiency should have been exposed through a cheap pageant staged by a bunch of lawyers.

Of course, it’s also possible to be compassionate and merciful to a fault. Many believe that an earlier Massachusetts jury acquitted Lizzie Borden for a double murder because they couldn’t bear the thought of a woman being put to death. Showing mercy to the right people in the right ways and at the right times may be a means of partaking in the Divine Nature, but it’s awfully hard. Immunizing the imperative to be merciful from crass manipulation could be the best reason for outlawing the death penalty. Just as Oscar Wilde wrote that socialism would spare us having to live for others, a judicial system that defaults to mercy might spare us from having to feel for others – unless we really want to.

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