Understandably, there are already calls for the execution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is now charged with the bombings of the Boston Marathon. He is alleged to have planned and executed the horrific bombings with his brother, Tamerlan, who died in a subsequent shootout with police.
Tsarnaev undoubtedly deserves the most severe sentence available if he is found guilty (and it is hard to imagine another outcome). However, that sentence, for this defendant, is not execution. From everything we know about Tsarnaev, his principal fear is not death. After all, he walked the streets with a ticking time bomb strapped to his back, engaged the police in a shootout, and likely tried to kill himself as he was being captured. None of these actions are consistent with a man who bears a deep fear of death.
Rather, what someone like Tsarnaev probably fears most is meaninglessness. He is typical of terrorists, in that he is a young man of little accomplishment who chose to make his mark on the world through a terrible act. For someone like Tsarnaev, and many others like him, the real fear is a life of being unimportant. The evidence of that is already clear, given that he chose a path of carnage and destruction, with the high risk of death that comes with all that, rather than to continue life as a nondescript college student.
Fortunately, the alternative to execution in the federal system is precisely what Tsarnaev seems to fear: utter meaninglessness.
Technically, the sentence is called life without parole (there is no parole in the federal system for any sentence). However, more than anything, it is a sentence to an existence without notice or meaning, to live out one’s life without the deep interactions with the world that inspire people to great and terrible acts. It begins with being assigned a number which largely replaces one’s name, and it ends with an unnoticed death, rather than the burst of attention that accompanies an execution.
One of my jobs as a law professor is to run a small clinic through which my students visit and work with convicts who are serving long prison sentences. What they are struck by, time and again, is that these sentences seem to exact punishment not through the infliction of pain or hard labor, but through endless bureaucracy and the deprivation of meaningful relationships. We have placed our prisons far from population centers, making personal visits hard; we have constructed them to require minimal labor, which reduces interaction with guards and between the prisoners; and we have ensured that maximum security prisoners suffer real limitations on the activities they can enjoy. It isn’t painful so much as boring. To a young man like Tsarnaev, that would be hell on earth.
We have the perfect place for him, too. The federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, is designed expressly for maximum isolation. Prisoners are regularly held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day there, and food is usually delivered to prisoners in their individual cells. In the Florence Supermax, Tsarnaev would find himself under the same roof (but largely isolated from) a number of other forgotten bombers, including Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Eric Rudolph (who bombed Atlanta’s Olympic Park in 1996), 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to explode a car in Times Square.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh dropped his appeals while incarcerated in the Florence Supermax, and actively sought to be executed. We gave him what he wanted, though we shouldn’t have.
McVeigh cheated a life of meaninglessness in Florence by getting the public death he wanted, with all the attendant attention and meaning. We should not make the same mistake with Tsarnaev. He should be sentenced to the thing he fears the most: being forgotten.