Guest contributor, Aliza Ansell—teacher, mentor, poet, and runner—has spent much of her life working with people pushed to the margins of society. She has seen firsthand how conditions such as poverty, discrimination, violence, substance abuse, and social isolation can misshape people’s lives. Likewise, Aliza has witnessed how those lives in turn can spin out of control. Over the years she has counseled and taught those very people.
You would expect that Aliza automatically would be against the death penalty; that although she would be aware of the horrible things that people can do, she, at the same time, would have faith in the individual’s ability to change and make amends. This, after all, is the core belief she has based her life’s work on: people can change.
Yet the actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the Boston Marathon on April 5, 2013 hit home for Aliza and greatly disturbed her. It caused her to reexamine some of the basic values she held regarding justice and the relationship between crime and punishment, up until the day those explosives were planted. In this powerful piece, Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty she takes us through her struggles to answer the difficult conundrum that all Americans should be asking themselves: Is it ever right for the state to put someone to death for a crime he or she has committed?
This piece was originally aired on WAMC. You can also listen to Aliza reading her essay.
Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty
It’s 2015 and I’m training for my first marathon. The winter has been merciless: ripping winds, ice, relentless snow storms. But like anyone training for a marathon, I’m out running.
I need to log an extraordinary number of miles before my race. True, it’s not the Boston Marathon; only the strongest qualify for Boston.
But this season is far from ordinary. As I head out with my dogs, I’m aware the Boston Marathon bombing trial is taking place. As my feet hit the ground, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits facing his victims.
As I run, I think about the guide dog, Rescue, walking beside Jessica Kensky as she wheels into the courtroom. Both of Jessica’s legs were shredded in the explosion.
I look down at my running shoes. I’m aware I have legs and Jessica doesn’t. I think about Rescue, as Jessica tells her story. Rescue waits next to her, while my dogs lumber beside me.
I can’t stop thinking about Dzhokhar. As I run alongside the river, I wonder what he’s thinking while Jessica tells the jurors about the moment her body was ripped apart.
I check my watch. 5.27 miles. I unzip my orange windbreaker.
April 2013 when Boston was in lockdown, I feared for my family’s safety. It was irrational. My parents live in Waltham. But the city was in lockdown. Boston has never been in lockdown.
When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, I wanted him to die. I didn’t care when I saw the image of him after his apprehension, his clothes soaked in blood. His thin frame reminded me that he was just a skinny teenager. I didn’t care. He ripped apart runners. He blew apart my city. He did not deserve to live.
On my runs, I can’t push past 14 miles. I feel defeated. But I lace up my running shoes and head outdoors.
Today the ice is melting. The dirt roads are a mess. I’m tired. I stayed up late watching Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walk into Whole Foods, wander around, trying to figure out which type of milk to buy after blowing apart 260 people and killing three others.
Dzhokhar waited four minutes before putting his backpack down: a backpack full of deadly explosives, the contents which would blow a part a child’s body.
I clock 4 minutes. The whole time I’m running, Dzhokhar stood next to eight-year old Martin. After the explosion, Martin’s tiny abdomen was blown out of his body.
I’m still running. I’m waiting for my watch to beep. It finally beeps. I stop dead in my tracks and burst into tears.
I’m struggling with what it means to want Dzhokhar to die. I talk with my partner Ric. I ask his feelings about capital punishment. He tells me he’s against it. As Americans we should be above capital punishment. But still, I want Dzhokhar to die.
What does it mean to take a life? I argue with Ric. I don’t want my tax dollars spent housing Dzhokhar. It costs $40,000 a year warehousing criminals. Ric tells me killing people costs more.
I stay up late another night, reading the cost to execute a prisoner.
During the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, I was on the phone with my mother. We learned that Danny, a young man originally from China, was held hostage at gunpoint by Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan and driven around the city.
Stopping briefly at a gas station in Cambridge, mistakenly thinking they only accepted cash, Dzhokhar left the car. Tamerlan temporarily put the gun in a seat pocket to fiddle with the GPS. In a well-calculated decision, Danny fled across the street to another gas station. I know those gas stations. Everyone from Boston knows those gas stations.
I ran over 14 miles today. It’s not 20, but I stop fighting the mileage. I stay up late again reading online debates regarding the death penalty. The people in favor of the death penalty are people I’ve never respected, with values I don’t like: eye-for-eye values. Killing terrorists makes the United States safe values.
I stare at my computer screen. I find my answer. There, in front of me are my two choices. I choose life.
I tell Ric. “Do you feel better,” he asks? I said, “Yeah.” Not that it matters. It’s a battle that raged inside my head. The outcome of the trial won’t hinge on my battle either. It won’t bring back the souls ripped apart that day, but neither will Dzhokhar’s execution.
As the sun breaks through the barren tree branches, I put on my running shoes. I trot down the muddy icy road. There are small pockets of warm air mixed with blasts of cold. That’s life, I think, a labyrinth, tangles of sunlight and horror. And it’s our responsibility to sort through the mess.