It has been quite a week in Boston: explosions, deaths, maimings, and other injuries at the marathon; acts of heroism and pulling together in the mayhem that followed; an interfaith service that included a visit from President Obama; a crowdsourced manhunt; a bizarre night of robberies, killings, and shootouts; an even stranger day of a city on lockdown and a door-to-door manhunt for a 19-year-old; a standoff and shootout centered on some poor citizen’s boat; the suspect miraculously captured alive and wounded; and, finally, Bostonians taking to their streets to applaud and cheer the police, FBI, and others who had served them so well. And, of course, the last of this unfolding under the banner of “Breaking News” for about twenty hours straight.
Time for a big collective sigh of relief, right? But it’s also time to think about how to respond to these events. For those who seek to operate out of a Catholic worldview and moral frame, there is no question that love, justice, mercy, and the common good, and especially the good of the most vulnerable, must prevail.
I want to suggest a couple of ways people might be tempted to respond, and to suggest alternatives in each case.
As people who knew the Tsarnaev brothers speak of them, I am struck by two different messages: “He is just as American as I am,” says one friend; “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them,” says Tamerlan on social media. Their friends clearly see them as fitting in, as belonging, as feeling at home and connected in their communities. Tamerlan, at least (and in moments), did not feel the same. I am already seeing people raising the question of whether, in light of the disconnect between the men that people thought they knew and the acts that these same men seem to have done, anyone should trust anyone ever. That question has so much potential to destroy the fabric of our community, and, I fear, especially to ostracize foreigners and naturalized citizens in our communities. The vast majority of people are good, desire to belong, and want to contribute to and connect to their neighbors and communities. Books such Bowling Alone (Putnam), Better Together (Putnam et al), and Alone Together (Turkle) have made arguments about the ways in which we are becoming increasingly isolated. That sort of isolation creates the space for people to be “radicalized” by groups that would turn that isolation to destruction.
So let’s step in and fight the isolation with love and community. There are all kinds of ways to do this. Do some community service, especially with an organization that reaches out to young people, recent immigrants, or both. Or even just seek to connect better with your neighbors, or the people at your church, your gym, or your workplace. Act as though people are yearning for connection and community. They probably are. Sometimes it’s particularly hard to connect with someone because of language barriers, religious differences, or political divides. That is when it is most important to do it anyway.
The other set of questions that is emerging is around what should happen to Dzhokar Tsarnaev now that he is in custody. Obviously, it is crucial that we learn as much as possible for him, in the interests of public safety and the common good. But it is also crucial that he be treated with the dignity and human rights that everyone shares, and also that the rights associated with the fact that he is an American citizen are respected. These are very basic tenets of justice. We have the means to pursue punishment of these crimes while respecting the rights of him as a citizen. Any suggestion that citizenship can be undone by crimes, especially the implication that naturalized citizenship is a lesser and impermanent type of citizen, is a threat to anyone who is a citizen, and especially a threat to naturalized citizens. Citizenship and its rights and privileges must be upheld throughout whatever legal processes are to come.
There is already talk of the death penalty for Tsarnaev. Although Catholic teaching continues to protect the possibility of capital punishment in theory, it is very clear that, as long as their are non-lethal means sufficient to protect the public, the death penalty is not permissible. Clearly, these crimes have struck a chord with many people, and their desire to answer blood and destruction with blood and destruction is understandable. But as we together consider, first in the court of public opinion and later in actual courts, what the best response to all this is, it is crucial that we remind one another that further destruction of life is not capable of communicating the sacredness of life. I’m hopeful that the people of Massachusetts, a state that does not allow the death penalty, will insist that, even if Tsarnaev eventually faces capital federal charges, will insist that he not be punished with death. This is a crucial opportunity for us to witness the sacredness of all life, regardless of crimes which make us so angry, which themselves senselessly lay waste to sacred life.
And, of course, if you are looking for even more practical ways to respond, let me suggest a few. If you are looking to give to help the Boston marathon victims, here are two great ways. You can give to The One Fund Boston here (easy online giving or instructions for mailing a check). This was created by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Tom Menino to help those most affected by the bombings. For those interested in giving to a Catholic fund, the Massachusetts state Knights of Columbus are collecting donations, which will be distributed to victims based on need, in dialogue with the Archdiocese of Boston and local social service agencies. (Accepting checks only. Mail checks made out to “Mass. State K of C Charitable Fund” to Massachusetts State Council Knights of Columbus; 470 Washington Street Suite #6; Norwood, MA 02062.)
Also, keep praying. Pray for the victims and their families. Pray for those who have died and those who mourn them. Pray for those who were injured and who have long journeys of recovery and rehabilitation ahead of them, and pray for those who will support them through it all. Pray for those (near and far) who walked away physically untouched, but feel shattered by this act of violence. Pray for the (volunteer and professional) first responders, especially those who risked their own safety to help others. Pray for all the unsung heroes who have helped in ways we’ll never know. But pray also for the Tsarnaev family, with members across the world. Their family has been shattered by these acts, like so many other families, but with the added shame and guilt of their loved ones having been the cause of all this. Pray for both Tsarnaev brothers, that they may know both God’s mercy, and our own. Pray, too, for everyone around the world who is a victim of violence. Perhaps, more importantly, pray for everyone around the world who uses, or who is tempted to use, violence to seek their version of justice. May God help us all to work together for peace and justice.