Does the Death Penalty Turn Terrorists into Martyrs?

Does the Death Penalty Turn Terrorists into Martyrs?

By Kelcey Hutchinson; Photo by Jane Rosenberg; Sketch of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in federal court 

During October 2021, the case of the infamous Boston Marathon bomber reappeared on every major news source headline. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is known for planting two homemade pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of one of largest running races in the United States. The terrorist attack that occurred on April 15th, 2013 killed three people and injured hundreds of others. In 2015, he was convicted of thirty charges, including many of which carried life sentences or the option for the death penalty. The terrorist was initially sentenced to death, but his verdict was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for improperly screening jurors.

The Boston Bomber case resurfaced this year because several conservatives on the Supreme Court came forward in support for reinstating the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because they question the value of the evidence presented by the defense stating that his older brother was the true mastermind of the attack. Several members of the court’s liberal wing oppose this argument and believe the value of evidence should be left to the jury. President Biden has also voiced his concerns about capital punishment and reinstating the death penalty for Tsarnaev. While the debate over the death penalty has been a polarizing political issue for quite some time, the resurfacing of this case has brought to a light a new question in cases of prosecuting terrorists. Does the death penalty turn terrorists into martyrs?

As a nation, we have decided that terrorism that results in loss of life is one the most horrendous crimes possible and that anyone that commits such an act should possibly face the death penalty. It is easy for one to argue the effectiveness of the death penalty for other heinous crimes, as it removes the monster from society and gives the victims and their families some sort of peace knowing the person had to face death. When it comes to cases of terrorism though, the death penalty becomes more complicated than just sending a criminal to be lethally injected.

The effects of executing terrorists goes well beyond retributive or restorative justice. The death penalty may be playing right into the hands of the very same terrorists that national security tries to protect us from. By sending them to their deaths, we may be turning terrorists into martyrs. Some terrorist groups thrive on the idea of martyrdom. Willing to die in the name of a cause is seen as heroic, and others look up to those that are courageous enough to go out in such a way. So, by allowing terrorists to be put to death, we may actually be vindicating their political motives and inspiring others to be just like them. Other potential effects include inviting retaliatory strikes, enhancing public relations, and encouraging fundraising for our enemies. Clearly, this is not the most intelligent counter terrorism strategy.

On the other hand, imprisoning terrorists for life does not comes without risks. Dead terrorists cannot talk, while living ones can still pose a threat if they maintain a connection to their organization or continue to lead others, even from their prison cells. The potentials for retribution for imprisonment or ransom of Americans overseas are always a concern when terrorists are caught. Even though it is risky, many other countries have concluded that imprisoning terrorists is the better option in the long run.

When it comes to the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the question of martyrdom of the death penalty has been one of contentious debate since his first death sentence in 2015. Some worry that sending him to death could inspire more attacks and allow Islamic terrorist groups to paint him as a martyr. Peter Krause, a professor of political science at Boston College, fears the possibility of this happening and went as far to say that “It’s possible that Islamic State militants might use the death sentence to bolster their propaganda war on the United States by accusing it of killing Muslims”. Others do not believe that Tsarnaev is seen as any sort of hero since he was more of a low-profile lone wolf with little known connections to any influential terror organizations. Ibrahim Hooper, a member of the Council on American-Islamic relations, is not convinced that a death sentence would turn the terrorist into a martyr since he was just a loner and no extremist groups care about loners.

With the death penalty decision for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev expected to come sometime next year, the question of martyrdom is yet to be decided, but this case has opened the door to thinking of this question in a broader sense of all cases of terrorism. If the death penalty wasn’t a hard enough puzzle to figure out before, it has only become more complex in the world of counter terrorism and national security. On top of divisive issues of human rights, we now have to consider how our decisions of justice will impact our enemies. The last thing we want is murals being hung and statues being molded in the name of the valiant martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the name of terrorism. While dying in the name of a cause is a foreign concept for most of us, it is a reality for many terrorist groups, and it is a notion that we must come to understand in order to protect ourselves from national security threats. In the end, we cannot let those who kill our own people for political gain to go down in history as heroes, even if it means letting them rot in prison until the very last days of their lives.

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