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Jewish Values and the Boston Marathon Bomber: What is Justice?

Jewish Values and the Boston Marathon Bomber: What is Justice?

Growing up as a Reform Jew in a liberal, socially active environment in Southern California, I always felt that capital punishment and the death penalty were morally wrong and never the right response to crime. Then, as a Reform Jew in the liberal, socially active environment of Boston University, I was faced with a moral dilemma.

A little background for those who aren’t familiar with the layout of Boston and with BU: Boston University’s Charles River campus covers about 130 acres from Boston’s Back Bay District to the Charles River, and every year, it encompasses some of the last stretch of the Boston Marathon. This area includes the 25th mile marker, where I was watching the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, when two bombs changed the lives of hundreds of people.

It has been more than a year, and I’m still not sure I’ve fully processed what happened that week. I was watching the race from mile 25 on Beacon Street when the bombs went off that Monday. I was looking out my bedroom window across the Charles River when the first helicopters and squad cars arrived at MIT after Officer Sean Collier was shot that Thursday, April 18th. I counted armored SWAT vehicles from my balcony overlooking Storrow Drive and waved to the armed men in the Blackhawk helicopters, and I hugged every single Boston Police Officer I saw in Boston Common that Friday night.

In the days and months following the Marathon bombings, I found myself deeply conflicted. On one hand, the case felt very close to home and personal, yet on the other, I wasn’t one of the 200+ victims or even a relative of a victim. I wanted justice for those who had been affected, but who was I to say what justice would look like? I began thinking about how an individual who had intentionally destroyed innocent lives should be held responsible for their crimes, and I began to question who - other than God - has the right to choose life or death for someone else.

In January, a federal grand jury returned a 30-count indictment against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the crimes committed at and after the Boston Marathon, 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty. Though Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, the courts released a notice of intent to seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev on the federal level. US Attorney General Eric H. Holder, who has previously stated that he is personally opposed to capital punishment, stated that the circumstances in this case, such as the fact that there is no question of guilt, compelled him to make the final decision.

It wasn’t until reading Holder’s decision and looking more into what Reform Judaism has to say on the death penalty that I was able to sort out my opinion on this case. According to the Talmud Sanhedrin, “he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind; whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.” Though the events that happened that week continue to cause pain in an entire community, executing Tsarnaev wouldn’t change the past, but instead would simply create, as the Boston Bar Association recently declared, the “illusion of ultimate punishment.” While some of those 200+ victims and their families may feel that they deserve retribution in the form of execution, I have been brought back to the teachings of Judaism, the belief that the death penalty is morally wrong, and the conviction that Tsarnaev will be convicted by a higher power.

Natalie Landau is a senior at Boston University, studying socio-cultural anthropology and archaeology, with an interest in international conflict resolution and human rights law. Natalie is originally from West Hills, CA, and is a member of Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA. In the summer of 2014, Natalie interned at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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