by Julia Steiny
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in custody, under heavily-armed guard. His body is in shambles. He and his now-dead brother were acting as though they were in their own violent action movie, complete with a car chase and shoot-outs. Trying to be macho heroes to God only knows who.
Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old engineering student, sustained gunshot wounds to his head, legs, hand and throat. He can not speak, communicating only by writing. Whatever life he might have had is probably over. The courts have video surveillance tapes and other evidence already. We can be fairly confident he’ll never be free again. Except in a prison context, love and joy are over. Hard to imagine what sort of peace he’ll ever have.
It was a horrible week for Boston. And the nation is fresh from Sandy Hook. Seemingly, there are more frequent acts of random, senseless violence. Not surprisingly, officials and the public are expressing themselves with strong, righteous, sometimes enraged emotions.
I totally understand Boston’s mayor wanting “to throw the book at him.” And if I were the mother of the murdered 8-year-old, or the wife of the MIT cop, or one of the nearly 200 maimed victims, I’m sure I would be crazed with rage, grief and a thousand other emotions. That’s only human.
The victims’ stories must be heard and honored. My deepest condolences and sympathies go to them and their families.
But I’m finding the bloodlust currently flowing from the blogosphere and the “comments” sections on the conventional press to be scarier even than the next act of unpredictable violence.
U.S. Senators want Tsarnaev tried as an enemy combatant, which is not even legal. I understand how emotionally satisfying such a suggestion may be, but surely it’s irresponsibly inflammatory.
The sensation of righteousness is strangely pleasurable, but it can encourage bloodlust. If we indulge in expressing vengefulness out loud, we’ll reap what we sow with our kids.
Because no retribution will bring back the dead or heal the injured. And retribution all too often reaps yet more retribution.
Wanting vengeance, while understandable, is itself a fierce enemy. Such feelings threaten our social fabric as much if not more than the offenders’ acts of violence.
I cringe when urban children express their right, even obligation to be aggressive, even violent. Their parents taught them that whenever they feel under attack, to attack right back, only harder. Don’t be weak. Don’t do anything so stupid as walking away. Even though a lot of these kids are at least nominally Catholic, turning the other cheek would be for chumps. Survival depends on being more aggressive than the other guy. Get vengeance quickly and fiercely, or the other guy will get you.
And that’s certainly the message of a lot of the action movies.
Of course, half the time, the “attack” that got the kid in trouble in the first place was entirely imagined. “She disrespected me” might have been just a jostle in the hallway, a joke gone wrong, or perceived dirty look. Feeling attacked matters more than what actually happened. Kids don’t know that feelings are just feelings, and that acting on them can have serious consequences.
So, however understandable, indulging in highly emotional expressions of vengeance only gives kids and others license to be vengeful themselves.
Retribution is endlessly cyclical. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye.
Mahatma Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye ends in making everyone blind.”
We need to step back, take a deep breath, and try to understand what on earth the Tsarnaev brothers were thinking.
Because rational understanding is the obligation and discipline of civilized people. It’s too bad that common enemies unite us more easily than common understanding. Because ultimately, understanding why these atrocities are happening is our only real shot at preventing them.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.