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Yvonne Abraham

We are better than Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Camille Lerner painted a sign after the verdict was announced.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

So far, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial has been about what he did and who he is.

Now it’s time to learn who we are.

Do we want the jury to vote for his death? Or do we believe that even someone as vile as he should keep what is left of his wasted life?

There was no suspense to Wednesday afternoon’s guilty verdicts. Tsarnaev’s attorneys admitted his involvement in the Marathon bombing from the start. What else could they do? There he was in the chilling videos, the dweeby guy in the backward baseball cap, loping along behind his brother, death slung casually over his right shoulder.


There he was, making his way down Boylston Street, choosing a place to stop, moving in among the lives he would destroy. See the lucky people walking by, avoiding grievous injury or death simply because they passed the impassive Tsarnaev at this moment, and not the next. See the ones who stayed, chatting and laughing in the last seconds before the carnage.

Focused on avoiding the death penalty all along, Tsarnaev’s attorneys have been trying to make the argument that he was led astray by his radicalized brother, that there is more to Dzhokhar than the monster who laid a bomb down by children.

But he didn’t help his cause: Day after day, he sat in the courtroom, unmoved by crying witnesses and graphic photographs, looking utterly detached from the bottomless misery for which he is responsible. Yes, lawyers counsel clients not to visibly react to the proceedings around them. Still, how is it possible for anyone with an atom of remorse to maintain such composure?

It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters now is what we want to happen next. Federal authorities say we should want to end Tsarnaev’s life. Maybe US Attorney General and death penalty opponent Eric Holder pushed for the ultimate punishment to mollify critics who argue that terrorists cannot be dealt with harshly enough in civilian courts. Or maybe he chose to seek the death penalty because it was the only sure way to deliver a trial, to give victims and those who loved them a chance to have their losses recognized, to put an endpoint on the agony of the past two years.


Maybe we needed this trial. For many, the long catalog of crimes and consequences has been cathartic. Do we need Tsarnaev’s death, too? It is so easy to hate him, to want to take his life, just as he took Krystle Campbell’s, Lingzi Lu’s, Martin Richard’s, Sean Collier’s. Why should he deserve to live when they are gone, their families shattered? Some of us would probably like to do the deed ourselves, to finish him in the most excruciating way possible.

That is understandable, forgivable. But, even so, what purpose does killing him serve? What trait that we admire in ourselves, or in our city, is honored by that?

We have fought pitched, painful battles over the death penalty in this state. We have decided, even when it comes to those who have done heinous things, that depriving them of liberty for the rest of their days is punishment enough. For some who deserve it, and some who don’t, that punishment can be worse than death. In prison, Tsarnaev will likely endure great deprivation, including endless hours in solitary.


He can’t hurt us anymore. But if we choose revenge over life, as he did, we could hurt ourselves. We should want him spared, not because his brother led him into evil, but because we are better — and stronger — than he is.

We should want him spared to live on in his darkness because we are capable of a mercy he could not muster.

We should want him spared, because that is who we are.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at