Is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Responsible?

Now that Boston is secured, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in custody, people are starting to ask: what is the best punishment for Dzhokhar?

Many want to hold him responsible for his actions. But did you know that leading atheist thinkers would disagree?

For instance, as Richard Dawkins has argued,

As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?

Or as Sam Harris writes,

All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.

And in another place:

…certain moral impulses—for vengeance, say—depend upon a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false.

Ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate authors of their evil. This moral attitude has always been vulnerable to our learning more about the causes of human behavior—and in situations where the origins of a person’s actions become absolutely clear, our feelings about his responsibility begin to change. What is more, they should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom him to psychopathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense, but hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued

In less technical language, Terry Allen’s song “Crisis Site 13” depicts the first-person perspective of a 13 year old who plans to wreck mayhem and then blame his actions on everyone else:

I’m 13 years old, I hate your guts / And I got a zip gun, I got a reefer

I’ve been screwing since I was 9 / And I can make you or break you with charm

I steal bubble gum, I steal cigarettes / And I can kill you and never go to jail

Just be circumcised, analyzed, sodomized / By some adult judge that will save me

‘Cause I’m young, I’m 13 and I’m cute.

And it’s your fault, society’s fault

School’s fault, church’s fault

Government’s fault, folk’s fault

And [removed] girls fault too

It’s the end of the family / It’s the end of the world

I’m 13 and I’m in love / And I hope you die

I’m 13 and I’m in love / And I hope you die

To be clear: I’m confident that Dawkins, Harris, and other atheists want the same outcomes as the rest of us: a safe society free of terrorism. As much as anyone else, they want to protect themselves and our communities from violence. They want the response to the bombings to deter future bombings. I am also certain that they all condemn the bombings as wrong, as bad, and as undesirable. There is a great deal of common ground here.

We’re focused on a narrower question. The question is this: is Dzhokhar responsible? Did he choose to commit terrorism?

Joshua Greene, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Jonathan Cohen, a Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School would argue, no, this is an unscientific idea:

Free will as we ordinarily understand it is an illusion generated by our cognitive architecture. Retributivist notions of criminal responsibility ultimately depend on this illusion, and, if we are lucky, they will give way to consequentialist ones, thus radically transforming our approach to criminal justice. At this time, the law deals firmly but mercifully with individuals whose behaviour is obviously the product of forces that are ultimately beyond their control. Some day, the law may treat all convicted criminals this way. That is, humanely. [Emphasis added].

What’s the difference? As they explain, there is, “the consequentialist justification for state punishment, according to which punishment is merely an instrument for promoting future social welfare, and the retributivist justification for punishment, according to which the principal aim of punishment is to give people what they deserve based on their past actions.”

In other words, their revised conception says there’s no point in punishing Dzhokhar, because he didn’t choose his action. We should simply pick the punishment that will best promote our ‘future social welfare.’ (And what would Greene and Cohen say if empirical studies happened to show that publicly torturing Dzhokhar for weeks on end would best accomplish that goal?)

A “retributivist” notion of responsibility says: you chose to do wrong, therefore, justice requires us to punish you. As Boston Mayor Thomas Menino put it, “I hope that the US Attorney takes him on the federal side and throws the book at him. These two individuals held this city hostage for five whole days.”

Menino is expressing a retributivist sense of justice: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar did something tremendously evil, wrong, and harmful. They deliberately killed people. They planned to scare an entire city. They intentionally injured hundreds. So it is just, fair, and appropriate to punish Dzhokhar for his evil actions.

As Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal asks us to reflect upon,

Imagine the hours spent building the bombs. The innocent-seeming trip to a store to buy those Fagor-brand pressure cookers. (Was a salesman on hand to explain the difference between the “Rapid Express,” “Futuro” or “Chef” lines?) The more furtive search for the ideal explosive. (Did the Tsarnaevs come across the “Do-It-Yourself Gunpowder Cookbook,” bizarrely available on Amazon?) The purchase of nails, ball bearings, and other small, pointed metallic pieces at some hardware store. The mixing of the ingredients, the construction of the triggers, the testing of the timers, the fitting into the backpacks.

Also, the thought given to where to plant the bombs, and when: Better near the finish line, where the crowds will stand closer together; better late in the race, so fewer police would be paying close attention to a couple of guys in baseball caps.

The more you reflect upon the lengthy preparation and intentional decisions the brothers made, the clearer it becomes that their actions were chosen, not determined. But atheists who believe in determinism must, by the logic of their commitments, say that this intuition is wrong, because naturalism leads to the position:

  • That Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s decision to set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon is not something they decided to do.
  • That if a vigilante mob storms the hospital and tears Dzhokhar limb-to-limb, that behavior would also be the product of forces beyond their control.
  • That if a naturalist judge accepts these arguments and says, “You know what? You did this because of your genes. We have to lock you up because your genes might make you do it again, and we can’t have both terrorism and society, but I know these bombings aren’t your fault” – well, that behavior isn’t her choice either.

Let’s make it more personal: can you be held responsible for your actions? For instance, consider your response to this article. Is that your response? Or is your response to this post instead traceable “to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge”?

In my own reflections about the bombings, I think that we should forgive Dzhokhar and Tamerlan. Choosing forgiveness, compassion, and a justice tempered by mercy is the right response to their evil decisions. By contrast, hating them, taking revenge, or as one politician urged, torturing Dzhokhar, is completely forbidden by the Christian ethic. Those choices are also wrong. But if these men did no evil, then there’s nothing to forgive. It is only if we have free will that there is a morality to our choices, whether they are for evil or for good.

We don’t have to choose between ‘free will and hating people’ or ‘determinism and compassion.’ That’s a loaded and false dilemma. Rather, we can choose between accepting ‘the reality of evil choices, the importance of responding with forgiveness, and deciding the case fairly and justly’ or a viewpoint where no one is responsible for any of their choices, whether they happen to be actions we label as terrorism, doing research in neuroscience, forming mobs, or making a judicial ruling.

What do you think? Does determinism make sense of our world? Does it lead to a fair legal system?

It seems to me that a deterministic viewpoint might lead some to be more humane and compassionate (‘those terrorists couldn’t help it’), but others to meanness and cruelty (after all, my genes made me do it!).

I submit to you that if you share with me the values of reason, compassion, and equity, then you will rightly and reasonably believe in the reality of free will, a genuine responsibility for our choices, a posture of forgiveness and love, and ultimately, a fair-minded approach to justice.