Beyond Redemption

Boston Marathon Bombing

There’s a frequent exchange that appears in one form or another throughout Plato’s dialogues. It focuses on the question of whether it’s better to suffer or be the one inflicting the suffering. Of course, “better” is a loaded term, and though I can’t read the original Greek to offer a more subtle textual analysis, it’s clear enough in a lot of these passages that what we mean by “better” is the real question under investigation.

While I’ve been able to follow the arguments between Socrates and his interlocutors, I never understood their significance in a more visceral way. Socrates position that it’s better to suffer under the tyrant than to be him always seemed like the necessary consequence of an earlier concession in the argument rather than a forceful point in and of itself.

Then on April 15, 2013, the Boston Marathon was bombed, and four days later the younger of the two perpetrators was found bleeding out in a boat in someone’s backyard. The events were shocking and tragic, but also far removed. I’ve visited Boston only a handful of times. I have no friends or family that live there. So what occurred, while deeply saddening, remained at a distance, along with all of the other horrendous and tragic things which occur to people around the world on every given day.

What the bombing really made me think about was two things. The first was what it would be like not only to lose a limb, or two or three, but to have them blown off—scorched and torn from my body. Physically, this (WARNING: graphic) is not something that my mind can really entertain. Instead, I focused on the less tangible effects: what it would mean for my life, for work and family, or for something as simple as trying to go to the bathroom.

There is a field across from where I work that sits between me and my afternoon commute. I’s a few hundred yards of tall grass and geese droppings, and on a few days I’ve crossed it trying to imagine what it would be like if an IED were planted along my path. I’ve thought about which combination of limbs I would rather lose (everything I could spare in exchange for both my arms and hands). About living one life one moment, and then having the rest of it transformed forever in the next. How I would pity those who would try to take care of me, and myself most of all. And I would be jealous, and angry and inconsolable.

That is if I survived.

While I can’t accurately contemplate the pain or emotions that would take over if I’d laid there bleeding out, I can imagine what kinds of thoughts might go through my head. The sense of absurdity, and loneliness, and unrelenting disgust. Disgust with the person responsible, with the world it took place in, with the people I loved who weren’t there with me, and everyone else for being a part of this miserable enterprise. Disgust for that which brought me into this world only to mutilate and torture me before ripping me back out of it and into the void.

The second thing is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev laying in that boat, scribbling on its walls a hate-filled epitaph with the blood flowing irreversibly from his flesh. I imagine myself laying there too, angry and sad and terrified. I don’t know what Tsarnaev thought or felt in those hours. All I know is what I might feel if I were there, and what I felt for the person I imagined to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as I played the scene out over and over again in my head.

I felt immense sadness and grief for Tsarnaev, not least of all because of how the events were playing out in, and situated by, the media. But while I’m sure plenty of it was a response conditioned by the drama surrounding his attack, and how much more reported on he was than any of the victims of it, there was something more to it. He did horrible things; things he most likely couldn’t even understand; things that could never be taken back or made right again.

On occasion I have had dreams in which I’ve done horrible things to perfect strangers. They are nightmares–fantasies of rage-fulfillment followed by shame and emptiness so crushing I wake up in a cold-sweat and am haunted for the rest of the day.

I have no interest in arguing the merits of Rolling Stone’s August issue cover. People have the right be offensive, and to be offended, and while I was not, I did rip the cover off before taking it on my subway ride to read. I think the image and article are important together though. Some monsters are born that way, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not. The particulars of how he became one, and whether Janet Reitman’s diligent reporting but ultimately speculative storytelling gets them right, aren’t that important, at least not to me. What does matter is the simple reality that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t have to become who he turned out to be.

That he is so young only emphasizes this potential more starkly. The knot that forms in my stomach when I think about the legacy he now faces is tied to how possible it feels that things could have been different. If someone like Bill O’Reilly had this perspective, he might be more inclined to see young Black men differently, not as criminals in waiting, but as people full of different possibilities whose futures are not statistically destined to fulfill the worst suspicions of white, middle-aged pundits.

And then there’s the question posed by Plato. I want to invert it. Is it worse to be the villain, or to be killed by one? There’s a moral dimension to this line of inquiry which presupposes that the answer is, without question, that it’s worse to be the villain. But what if we cast that aside?  Regardless of any moral considerations, which would be preferable, to be one of the three people killed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? That I would take my own life if I were Tsarnaev, or at least cannot imagine allowing it to continue, tells me it’s the former.

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17 thoughts on “Beyond Redemption

  1. I think that part of what’s makes us human is our ability to contemplate whether or not something is moral or immoral, good or bad. These things are present in other animals but not to our extent. Considering that the ability to be moral is one of the things that makes us human than it would be better to be killed by a villain than to be a villain. The villain has made a choice not to follow one of the best parts of being human.

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  2. Great post Ethan. Really. I’ve got lots to say about this topic, but I think I need a minute to collect my thoughts. So consider this a shout out. Nice work.

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  3. Hmmmm… why do you presume it is undesirable to be the tyrant? I mean, if the question is how can one live with one’s self while being so tyrannical… well, clearly the answer is rooted in that most tyrants don’t view themselves as tyrannical. Going further, most people who do ill don’t view themselves as doing such. Or see what they are doing as justified by greater injustices. I doubt Tsarnaev sees himself as a villain or a terrorist; I presume he sees himself as some sort of freedom fighter attempting to make right of wrongs committed against he and those he is aligned with. Or at least he probably did at the time he was committing such acts.

    The question seems predicated on a particular view of humanity that I’m not sure I accept or I agree with.

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  4. There is, it seems to us
    At best, only a limited value
    In the knowledge derived from experience
    The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies
    For the pattern is new in every moment
    And every moment is a new and shocking
    Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
    Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm
    In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
    But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble
    On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold
    And menaced by monsters, fancy lights
    Risking enchantment.

    Plato makes the point repeatedly in Gorgias: there are two parts to injustice, the doing of it and the not-getting-punished part of it. Inflicting suffering on others is bad but getting away with it is the worst part. Tom Petty’s song would tell us It’s Good Being King but it’s hell when nobody dares to tell you your butt stinks. Nobody can be trusted and nobody trusts you. They’ll tell you what you want to hear when you’re in charge but they’ll poison you, given half a chance. Damocles rewarded a particularly disgusting flatterer by making him sit on his throne under a sword hung by a hair.

    Suffering comes in many forms. A beaten man may limp home and his wife will cry over him and patch him up. The guy who beat him up goes home to an empty apartment. Who’s better off? The one is loved, the other hated and alone.

    Gorgias is so brutal and obvious. Want someone to really suffer? Let him live with the consequences of what he’s done. I hope Dzokar Tsarnaev lives out the rest of his days waking up every morning, remembering running over his brother, remembering those hours in the boat. I hope he gets to see the people he’s damaged, lives he’s altered forever. I’ve had to live with a few things I did and got away with. At turns, I’ve honestly thought I’d be better off dead than having to live with those memories.

    I sincerely hope they don’t try to impose the death penalty on him though. I want him to live a long life. I want him to wake up every morning. I want him to remember.

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  5. It’s pretty easy to say you would kill yourself, if you were in that position, in a blog post. It’s far harder to actually go through with it. Most (non-depressed) people find a way to live, even if they couldn’t imagine that before.

    I’m also not sure what you’re imagining here. That you one day wake up and notice you did horrible things for some reason? Like Kazzy said, most people who do horrible things, do it for reasons that seem pretty compelling at the time.
    Maybe it’s about realizing how wrong you were, only after the fact?

    I’d also disagree with the headline “Beyond Redemption”. I don’t think anyone is really beyond redemption.
    BlaiseP said he’s against the death penalty because it is less cruel than the alternative. I’m not okay with that. It should not be about the alternative under which the offender suffers more.

    On Platos actual question on whether it’s better to suffer or inflict suffering.
    That seems to be a question that presupposes a certain worldview. A worldview in which there’s some kind of objective measure of evil. Some way in which your soul or something akin to it can get tainted. An objective judgement of who is the better human.
    But there’s nothing apart from our own personal judgement. That same judgment was already applied in the decisions that led you to inflict suffering. That means you have already decided.
    So you will probably never face such a clear decision, unless the Joker has kidnapped you and put you in that dilemma.

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    • The murdered will not be returned to life. The maimed and traumatised are altered forever. I’m a consequentialist, for better or worse, with all the philosophical shortcomings of that position. But consequentialism is ultimately liberating: it frees up the observer to dispassionately consider inputs and outcomes, devoid of any of the hand-wringing and agonising about anyone’s redeemability. In my profession, software, lots of things don’t do what they “ought” to do. The maddening part is knowing the software is only acting as it does — and it’s pointless getting mad about it.

      The death penalty is barbaric. It’s based on a false supposition, the pettiness of revenge. Yes, it’s true, I do want Dzokar Tsarnaev to wake up every morning in a jail cell and remember why he’s there. The poor bastards who get up and put on their artificial legs will do the same. I am told amputees suffer from phantom pain, unbearable itching and burning sensations arrive in their spinal cords and brains, processed with all the fidelity of an actual irritation or burn.

      The Buddhist monk Kukai had a ministry to prisoners, believing they were most in need of redemption. Of course, the Buddhists believe we must atone for our sins by enduring the physical world with all its sufferings, over and over. I’m not sure I hold with that sort of thinking but I do agree with them on one thing, that to exist is to suffer. We go from need to need, from getting up in the morning and needing to pee, to needing to eat a little something, needing to get a shower, needing to get to work, needing to keep the job, needing to get paid, needing to buy groceries, needing to do the laundry and the dishes and the kids need to get their homework done — needing to rest — and it all happens over and over every goddamn day of our lives.

      Perhaps Dzokar Tsarnaev will come to terms with what he’s done, must do. The amputees must do the same. Neither has much of a choice in the matter: the deed is done. Life goes on.

      Plato isn’t really saying we should protect the criminal from justice in Gorgias. That’s a dumb interpretation of Plato and yours isn’t exactly the cleverest interpretation of my point either. The point is this: crime and punishment are of a piece. We arm the agents of the law, delegate powers to them, give rights to the accused, give them due process, — lest we pervert the course of justice. We cannot be ruled by the mob or our own sense of vigilante justice. We must be ruled by law. When a prisoner serves his time, society says “he’s served his time.” And it is service. We can only hope and expect the released prisoner to enjoy his freedom and turn a new page and live out the rest of his life and never serve another day in prison. We hope he’s learned his lesson, but that lesson isn’t that crime doesn’t pay. Crime pays, all right. But crime has consequences and if the law catches up to him, it will make the criminal pay.

      So which is the bigger injustice, that a tyrant beats a man, or that the tyrant gets away with it because he’s beyond the law and its agents? I’d say the latter.

      Epitaph on a Tyrant

      by W. H. Auden

      Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
      And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
      He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
      And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
      When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
      And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

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    • Just to be clear, I don’t equate “beyond redemption” to “should be executed.”

      The beyond redemption part is an assertion that he can never make up for what he did, or set things “right” again, or ever be more than a bad person.

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  6. While it is a great place to start, thinking about it as bomber versus the bombed, there are other, less kinetic, examples…

    Is it better to be the slave owner than the slave? (Let’s go to the 1800’s to avoid discussions of “well, in Greek society…”) Is it better to hold the whip than to be whipped?

    You can continue to turn down the dial and ask “is it better to be white in the 1950’s than black?” Turn it down a little more and ask about the 90’s. The oughts. The teens. Ask about sexuality. Ask about gender. Ask about “privilege”.

    We know who Jesus said were “blessed”. We know who he said would be last and who would be first… but… well, he was wrong about a lot of things.

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    • Jaybird, I think there’s something in just looking at the relative situations, vs. the direct cause of harm.

      In any case, what I think you’re examples demonstrate is just how much of this may be motivated by social norms. Which is important to the issue as addressed in the dialogues.

      If you could get away with being evil, that is, no one actually thought you were evil, or had done something evil.

      How much of this is a feeling of shame on my part, than a moral sensitivity?

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  7. First, just a wee housekeeping note. It’s a small thing, but might I politely suggest that you add a little warning to the link with the picture letting people know how graphic it is?

    The only answer I can really come up with isn’t really which one is “better.” “Better” to me implies a degree of goodness, and so comparing two situations that are utterly terrible in terms of goodness isn’t a question that lends itself to a coherent answer for me.

    The best I can say is, horrible as it may be, I can at least imagine what it would be like to live a life so traumatically altered. I can imagine being mourned if I had been one of those who lost their lives. I simply cannot imagine being a person who plants a bomb to kill or maim innocent people. One is at least conceivable to me, and the other is utterly not.

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    • “I simply cannot imagine being a person who plants a bomb to kill or maim innocent people.”

      Yet you doom hundreds of children to autism every year with your spurious vaccines!

      All kidding aside… imagine it DID come to bear that vaccines DID cause autism and that they never should have been given. While I’m sure you’d feel regret at the risk you exposed children to, I’m also sure you would recognize that you were genuinely doing what you sincerely believed to be right.

      Maybe I’m crazy, but I really tend to believe that it is rare the person who says, “I know what I’m about to do is objectively wrong and should not be done, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I think most people who do ill are thinking something between, “This is the right thing to do because it achieves noble ends,” and, “This is an ugly thing but I have to do it in pursuit of noble ends.” I mean, coming full circle to vaccinations, if the question is, “Is it right to poke small children with sharp objects until they cry?” we’d all say that’s a pretty crazy thing to do. If the question is, “Is it right to vaccinate children?” most of us would think it is a very sane thing to do, if not a moral requirement.

      Most of us look at Tsarnaev and think, “How could he blow up innocent civilians… innocent children?” But I’m sure there are some people out there who are thinking, “How did he summon up the courage to walk into the heart of one of the Great Satan’s founding cities and wage a counterattack?” And to the person who not long ago watched a bomb with “Made in USA” written on the side fall on his house and blow up his children, that might seem like a very sane thing to do, if not a moral requirement.

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