Kevin Cullen

For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, death is in life

So the Justice Department says it will seek to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if he is convicted of participating in the bombings that killed two young women and a little boy while maiming scores of others.

If I had to bet, I’d say this was a tactical decision made in Washington, hoping to persuade Tsarnaev’s lawyers to cop a plea in exchange for life in prison.

No trial, no mess.

But what if the government really wants to kill him?

Putting the moral issues aside for a moment, from a practical point of view, the idea of the government showing its revulsion at Tsarnaev’s taking of human life by taking his doesn’t make sense.


Many of Tsarnaev’s victims oppose the idea of killing him. There are others who would arm wrestle for the chance to start the lethal drip in the death chamber.

But, for argument’s sake, step away from the concept of revenge or even the notion that the punishment should fit the crime, and ask: what is accomplished by executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

Surely, one of the reasons that he and especially his venal, older brother embarked on their nihilistic rampage was to draw attention to what they saw as some kind of US-led war against Muslims. Never mind that their hatred of the very country that gave them sanctuary and opportunity was wrapped in bitter selfishness, ignorance, and insecurity. Consider instead that one of the primary motivations for their action was to publicize their misguided beliefs and to associate themselves with some extreme form of Islam in which the killing of infidels, even innocents, is seen as somehow justifiable.

What better way to reward Dzhokhar Tsarnaev than to make a martyr out of him. If he is convicted and thrown in a prison cell for the rest of his life, he will be forgotten by other jihadists even before they realized he existed. But throw him into the protracted appellate process that accompanies every death penalty case, send him to his execution amid an unrelenting, worldwide media glare, and he will become a cause célèbre among those who would like to see Boston Marathon bombings every day.


A dead Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will become a piece of propaganda, an imagined grievance, for the very people who cheered the carnage on Boylston Street. It’s playing into their hands.

Given his circumstances, I can’t imagine a convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would ever be placed in a prison’s general population. But if he were, it would only be a matter of time before some other inmate sidled up to him to ask the ageless question, “What are you in for?”

Tsarnaev could go on with some nonsense, like the infantile tripe he scrawled on the boat he hid in after he ran over his own brother in his haste to escape the cops.

Or he could tell the truth and say: “I placed a bomb hidden in a backpack right in back of an 8-year-old boy. It killed the boy, and it ripped the leg off the boy’s 7-year-old sister. Some of the shrapnel went into the eye of their mother. The bomb blew some people’s legs off, too. Then we killed a cop, and tried to take his gun, but we couldn’t figure out how to open the holster. That’s what I’m in for.”


Putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death is, in the end, putting him to sleep. That’s not much of a punishment.

Let him live. Let him scratch the days into the wall of his cell. Let him count the weeks, the months, the years. Let him grow old alone and miserable. Maybe then, maybe only then, will he realize what he has forfeited and what he has robbed from the people who loved Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, MIT cop Sean Collier and everybody else who lost a limb and a little piece of their soul that sunny, horrible Patriots Day.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at