Death Penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Makes Us Losers in a Crucial Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Disaffected Youth

The Global War on Terror is, among other weighty matters, a battle for the hearts and minds of our youth. Judging from the increasing numbers of young Americans, Europeans, Australians and Canadians heading to Syria to fight for ISIS, it would seem that we are losing. Enter the Tsarnaev brothers and their hatred of everything we stand for. What does Dzhokhar Tsarnaev want? Attention, martyrdom, a direct route to heaven, and to be a folk hero to other alienated youth around the world. In short, all the things we gave him when we sentence him to death.

Nothing mitigates Tsarnaev’s terrible crimes. Even if he sees himself as a soldier, what true warrior kills innocent civilians, especially children? His savagery is beyond comprehension, it is despicable, and deserves the most fearsome punishment we can give. But he welcomes death; it feeds all his delusions of heroism and divine reward. In the meantime, the appeals process will keep him in the limelight for years to come. That handsome face will be a focal point for other disaffected youths.

While he and his despicable brother are not entirely synonymous with ISIS they are part of the nebulous formation that is sweeping across the globe. In March, Graham Wood pointed out in the Atlantic, that ISIS not only wants the West to fight it, it wants to be vanquished, only to rise again in accordance with scriptural predictions. So in meeting violence with violence we are feeding the beast. Instead, we might look to Martin Luther King, who in turn was inspired by Gandhi. We must win by being the better people, by finding the courage to fight without violence, by showing them who we are. A life sentence takes courage, self-assurance, and confidence in the strength and power of our beliefs.

By all reports ISIS is violent, intolerant, blood thirsty and misogynist, and yet even young women are running to join its ranks and marry its fighters. Indeed, Western Democracies are leaking young people to ISIS, who then weaponizes them and hurtles them back at us. The ideology and religion being offered by jihadist, while repugnant to me, clearly has some allure to our lost and alienated young. Why do they go?

This war is a clash of values: secular freedom and humanism versus repressive, paternalistic theocracy. It would be easy to dismiss ISIS’s appeal as the adventure of driving around with machineguns and being given multiple wives. But ISIS also offers certainty, order and the feeling that their work is meaningful.

Jeffrey Tayler, writing in on May 10, 2015 disparaged Islam, indeed anyone with religious belief, when he mocked it as “an ideology based on belief without evidence.” He suggested, “... we should ... proudly espouse, as alternatives to blind obedience to ancient texts, reason, progress, consensus-based solutions, and the wonderful panoply of other Enlightenment ideals underpinning our Constitution and the liberties characterizing Western countries.” This disparages all the Christians, Jews and others, who while embracing those Enlightenment principals, also take comfort from “ancient texts.”

Our democracies are old and tired, transformed from bastions of liberty to secular materialism. Neither Adam Smith nor John Stuart Mill dreamed that individual freedom would spin out of control, encompassing a complete lack of obligation, responsibility or connectedness to anyone – family, community or nation. The disparities in wealth, opportunity and family success leave many behind.

How we treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sends a message to our alienated youth. Are we really committed to the principals of The Enlightenment? We need to show ourselves to be civilized, benevolent; not vengeful and blood thirsty.

What can we offer our young people that will keep them from this regressive path? We have moved so far towards materialism, that we have taken away the possibility of them finding meaning, love and acceptance.

Ancient texts also survive because they resonate, the hold they have on so many of us is mysterious. As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious ... He ... who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” It is not necessary for Tayler to believe – but unless he is respectful of those who do, and the desire young people have to find an alternative to the moral corruption and decadence that has taken root in Western democracies, we will lose our children to those who, however brutally, speak to their yearning for meaning and order.

As Tayler points out, we didn’t choose this battle, but we must win it. Let’s not repeat the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev mistake.

  • Jennifer Snowdon

    A very high and comprehensive perspective that touches us all!

  • Ann Agranoff

    Good points, Jillian!