“I Could Never Do Something Like That:” Dehumanizing Terrorists

Everyone is talking about whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves to die.  Yes, of course he deserves to.  But so does almost everyone else in the world.  Most of us have committed sins–in action or in our hearts–which are, if not as serious as Tsarnaev’s, certainly serious enough to merit Hell.  I think it’s a mistake to base any decision about punishment on what a criminal deserves, rather than what will serve as a deterrent, a protection to the public, or an opportunity for reform.  What’s really on my mind, though, is the way that people are treating Tsarnaev as if he is not even human, and as if they could never have done what he did.  Let’s face it: a lot of us could have done something just as horrible.  I’m not trying to diminish his guilt in any way; I’m just trying to respond to the outrage that takes away our common humanity with him.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writing about his terrible treatment by the Soviet government and prison guards, refuses to dehumanize them by treating them as something completely other from him: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Now, Tsarnaev is about as close as you can get to this hypothetical evil man commiting evil deeds.  There’s not much you can say to mitigate what he did.  But that doesn’t put us on a different plane from him.

In one episode of Star Trek, the crew encounters an alien whose mental powers are so strong that he can simply will something and it will happen.  His planet and his wife were destroyed by a hostile race.  At the end, he reveals that he is in self-imposed exile because of the revenge he took in a moment of impulsive grief: not only did he kill his wife’s murderers, but in a single act of will, he annihilated their entire race.  Captain Picard condemns the genocide, but there is a strong note of sympathy for the alien, who succumbed to the terrible temptation that his powers constantly presented to him.  The episode leaves you wondering–if I were able to make my darkest thoughts come true in the blink of an eye, what would I do?

Let’s pray for Tsarnaev, who acted on the anger and the impulse that all of us are susceptible to, and let’s imagine what we are capable of.

Tsarnaev immediately after planting the bomb next to a little boy.

(photo credit: The Telegraph)

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