Twenty-five months and two days is a long time. Think of the thousand visions and revisions that your life has gone through in those hours. Babies have learned to run, trees have put forth blossoms and born fruit—twice, birds have flown and returned and flown and returned, tides have ebbed and flowed, people I loved have left my life and others have arrived, and all the rest that happens in the minutes of life.
On Friday, just minutes before I heard from a student that Dhzokhar Tsarnaev is to be killed for the acts he committed those same twenty-five months and two days ago, I read one of my most favorite poems at a library event. Jill McDonough’s beautiful “Accident, Mass. Ave.” In May of 2013, just a few weeks after the Marathon Bombings of April 15, when much of Boston was posturing pain and confusion behind angry words of pride and vengeance, when crowds gathered to protest outside the funeral home where the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev lay, I heard McDonough read her poem.
I love it because it has the funny, knowing belligerence of Boston drivers, and the deeper resonance of how to be a human, anywhere.
Her words changed how I see the world, how I try to encounter challenges and upsets, how I try to distill my anger to an empathy for another’s fear. It is uphill work, it does not work every time, and I contain far too much passion to lose all my anger, all the time, forever.
Yet, here we are, twenty-five months and two days later and the news is again full rehashing the bombings, full of the death penalty, full of what I suspect to be hope-desperate statements about how Boston is a strong and resilient city, how now we can put this horror behind us, how now everyone can move on in peace, now that the young man behind this circus of horror will be gone.
Couldn’t the strong and resilient people have found in their hearts and minds to not kill another person? Vengeance and honor killings, these are weak and medieval.
To me, this sentence looks to be the work of vengeful and furious and frightened people, not wise and loving and resilient.
One friend, as we grapple with the sadness of all of this, says that one source of comfort to her is that the conditions of life in prison are so deplorable that it makes Death Row look a little more humane. We wince at this—the recognition that the conditions of our justice system make death preferable to life.
I am going through the grieving process for my own father—who probably wouldn’t agree with much of what I am writing here about the Marathon Bombings, except for the healing power of the McDonough poem—and I think of how death does and does not erase the living. In some ways, my father is more present in my thoughts now than any time while he lived. I know too that a natural death, brought on by a pernicious disease, is different than a State mandated death.
But, in the end, not so very different. Someone who was there, breathing air and looking at the world, suddenly is not.
My father is not erased. The echo of his laughter, of his actions, of his struggles and successes and passions will linger—thankfully—as long as anyone remembers him. The impact he had on those around him did not disappear when he drew his last breath.
This is not unique to my father and his death.
The Death Penalty, also, does not erase the actions in life of the condemned. My heart hurts when I see people around Boston, running and walking on prosthetic legs. I have started running in part because I can and recognize it as a privilege—much like voting or the other perks of a non-persecuted and free life. I am not ignorant or immune to the effects of the Marathon Bombings on the lives of those in this city, in this world. I do not think that Tsarnaev should walk free into the world and if we surround him with light and love and forgiveness, legs and arms will grow back and the world will be at peace.
The ghosts and bogeymen of his actions will outlive him, would have outlived him if he lived in solitary confinement to be a thousand.
One of the falsest things I’ve heard on the news is the statement about how we are not afraid, how the terrorists failed because we are not afraid.
Look at gun laws and the lack of them, at increased security measures in all corners, at the hyper-emotional level of newscasts, at panicky headlines, at increasing religious and racial and political intolerance, and all the rest of the news and changes in how we are in this world, on this planet, towards each other…these, to me, appear to be actions of extreme fear, not of resilience or strength. We are trying to protect against the threats of a world.
We are just scared, aren’t we?
Do you breath a sigh of relief when you say this? To admit fear feels, to me, like dropping the posturing and the pretense, like being honest and finally able to advance to somewhere useful and real.
Death does not solve fear. We push away, kill, hide what we cannot comprehend, what we fear. This buries it, puts the monsters under the bed, the witches in the forests, the ghosts in our nightmares, the seeds of violence in the dreams of the marginalized. We will not become a safer and kinder people in a grander and more understanding society by killing what we fear.
I believe we would be on the road to being a safer and kinder people on a more peaceful world by seeking to live in the present we’ve created, by using our strength as a bastion of world power and culture to demonstrate mercy, to value all life, to admit, accept, and move forward from fear.