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Principles Matter

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If you are against the death penalty, you are against the death penalty. Period. No ifs. No buts. No qualifications.

If you believe the death penalty is not a deterrent, then it’s not a deterrent no matter how heinous the crime.

If you are convinced the death penalty is an instance of mindless vengeance, then it’s always mindless vengeance.

If you consider the death penalty validation of state-sanctioned murder, then it’s always state-sanctioned murder.

Many beliefs — especially beliefs acted on in the political arena — may be subordinated to relativistic considerations, but not ones involving moral principles. The taking of life, many believe, I believe, is always wrong. It does not matter who does it or what are the motives.

Which brings us to the decision announced last week by the Justice Department that it is seeking the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 20-year-old accused of the Boston Marathon bombing. Three people died and hundreds were injured in that attack.

The Boston bombing was the worst the terrorist attack within the United States since 9/11. Investigators believe Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police shortly after the marathon bombing, constructed and detonated bombs near the race’s finish line. Tsarnaev is also accused of killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer.

There is not much doubt of Tsarnaev’s guilt, though he will get a fair trial, as everyone accused under the American system of justice deserves. I have no doubt that Tsarnaev fits any and all definitions of evil. He killed and he maimed, he took lives, probably intended to take even more, and he ruined the lives of many for years to come. Few will mourn if he dies a young man.

If Dante were writing The Divine Comedy today, he would reserve a place for Tsarnaev in the circle of the Inferno closest to Satan himself.

But his death at the hands of the state will not alter what he did. “It’s not going to change what happened,” said Lee Yanni, a 32-year-old Bostonian wounded in the attack. “I really don’t think there is a right or wrong in this situation. It’s not going to bring anybody back.” It will, however, as Richard Cohen notes, “perpetuate the death penalty, which is on its way out in much of the world and even the United States. We don’t even know anymore how to execute someone — witness the prolonged and allegedly agonizing death of Dennis McGuire, who recently took over 20 minutes to die.”

Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the decision to seek the death penalty. “The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision,” Holder said in a statement released by the Justice Department.

Holder opposes the death penalty. Perhaps he was trying to please his boss, President Obama, who inexplicably and illogically said in 2004 that he believes “the death penalty is appropriate in certain circumstances. There are extraordinarily heinous crimes, terrorism, the harm of children, in which it may be appropriate.” Holder may have been responding to the 70 percent of Americans who support it for Tsarnaev. He may have feared the 21st century equivalent of the 1950s “soft on communism” charge. No doubt many Republicans — and some Democrats — would have accused him of coddling terrorists.

Whatever Holder’s motives, he has agreed to seek the death penalty in the Boston Marathon bombing even though he opposes it.

By that action, Holder violates his own principles and compounds Tsarnaev’s horrendous crime.

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