Will The Boston Bomber's Death Sentence Deter Terrorists? Experts Say Tsarnaev's Fate Won't Stop Further Attacks
Two years after bombs exploded near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon — killing three, grievously wounding 17, and injuring 240 more — a federal jury this week sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the fatal attack. The jury decided that the death penalty was fitting punishment for six of Tsarnaev’s 17 capital counts, all of which were connected to Tsarnaev planting a pressure-cooker bomb on Boylston Street. The 21-year-old Tsarnaev is now the youngest person on federal death row, according to VICE News, although a lengthy appeal process is likely to delay the execution of his sentence.
“There’s nothing happy about having to take somebody’s life,” Karen Brassard, who was injured in the blast, told The New York Times after the sentencing. “I’m satisfied, I’m grateful that they came to that conclusion, because for me I think it was the just conclusion.” Brassard's reactions joins the tumult of feelings — from relief to angst to sorrow — expressed by survivors in the past couple days. As The Boston Globe highlights, the emotional response didn’t involve much peace, although serenity may have been the desired outcome. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh expressed as much, when he issued a statement hoping that the sentencing brought “a small amount of closure to the survivors, families and all impacted by the violent and tragic events.”
Aside from the murky, malleable concept of justice (prosecutor Steven Mellin argued in court that “the only sentence that will do justice in this case is a sentence of death”), and the intangible invocations of closure, tough sentencing can also be seen as a means to prevent other people from committing crimes similar to those committed by the individual on trial. Tsarnaev’s scribbled notes before his capture by police indicated that the marathon bombing was a violent protest against U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world. So, in the case of the Boston Bombing trial, will Tsarnaev’s death sentence deter future terrorists?
Experts seem to think it's unlikely. Jeffrey Kaplan, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor who has written books on religious violence and terrorism, told RawStory that in cases of deadly contemporary terrorism, the threat of the death sentence is unlikely to act as a deterrent. Whether Tsarnaev dies matters little, Kaplan argued, because in most “lone-wolf strikes that are motivated by conflicts occurring far from American shores, perpetrators, aspirants and wannabes alike are willing to embrace death and see prison as a form of matriculation to greater heights of the terrorist trade.”
Kevin McNally, director of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, told the Times that was Tsarnaev was the first terrorist to be sentenced to death in the U.S. in the post-9/11 era. Other convicted terrorists have been slapped with extensive prison sentences. Tsarnaev is thus the only terrorist on death row. Amnesty International immediately made clear that they opposed the sentence — brushing aside claims of justice and agreeing with Kaplan on the inefficacy of such a sentence.
“We condemn the bombings that took place in Boston two years ago, and we mourn the loss of life and grave injuries they caused,” the human rights watchdog said in a statement Friday. “The death penalty, however, is not justice. It will only compound the violence, and it will not deter others from committing similar crimes in the future.”
These questions are, of course, pertinent to other contexts. In April, Pakistan’s president Mamnoon Hussain argued that the decision to lift a six-year moratorium on the death penalty would help to deter terrorism. Amnesty International immediately denounced the claim with arguments similar to those they have espoused in the Tsarnaev case. “The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime — terrorism or instability,” Oluwatosin Popoola, an AI adviser told IB Times. “Evidence from studies shows that the death penalty doesn't have a greater effect that any other punishment, such as time in prison.”
These arguments are perhaps born out in Pakistan’s case. By April, the country had already executed 21 people on terrorism-related counts since December, when the moratorium was lifted. And yet, deadly terrorism attacks continued to be carried out throughout the beginning of 2015. Just last week, 47 people were killed in a terrorist assault on a bus in Karachi.
Laura Dugan, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, argued recently in The Baltimore Sun that scholarly research indicates terrorists are “immune to deterrence.” Instead, Dugan suggested that good governance in countries struggling with domestic terrorism — essentially weakening civilian support for terrorist organizations and providing incentives not to engage in terrorist activity — might be the most effective form of counterterrorism.
In the U.S., she advocated for several simple measures to try to prevent terrorist attacks: identifying potentially dangerous ideologies, determining whether extremist groups formed around those ideologies rely on a certain constituency, and identifying the grievances of that constituency. In so doing, authorities could address some of the concerns of this vulnerable-to-radicalization constituency, and thus lessen support for the extremist groups.
In the meantime, Tsarnaev is waiting for death. Criminal law professor Charles P. Ewing, director of the Advocacy Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told VICE that he had little doubt the sentence would, eventually, be carried out. “When all is said and done the death penalty will be upheld, but it will take many years,” he said. “People looking for closure are not going to get it. When it eventually happens, this will be way out of people's consciousness.”
But maybe not far from the thoughts of members of extremist groups. Indeed, far from deter terrorism, Tsarnaev's eventual execution could arguably spur further attacks. "Tsarnaev is a criminal and a terrorist responsible for one of the most reprehensible attacks in Boston's history," Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, told AP Sunday. "I do fear that the death penalty could cause some Islamic terrorist groups to paint him as a martyr."
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