The question of whether to sentence Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one half of the sibling team who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent killing of a police officer, to death or a life in prison seems straightforward. A yes or no. Black and white, even.
But it isn’t so simple.
In the realm of diagnostic psychology, we see black-and-white thinking in an individual as a cognitive distortion. Seeing something as purely good or purely bad with little consideration of what lies in between is abnormal and leads people to make assumptions about whatever concept they’re engaging with.
When people act on those assumptions, dysfunction and damage can follow. What we all should do is assume there is a world of grays, not just black or white, to be considered before acting.
Tsarnaev’s defense built a case on his humanity, his sense of familial responsibility, his fragile psyche manipulated by an older brother. His defense emphasized that older brother Tamerlan, an aspiring boxer turned Islamic extremist, manipulated and coerced Dzhokhar, a typical college student, into carrying out the bombings.
Federal prosecutors built a case on Dzhokhar’s inhumanity, his lack of conscience and casual, callous actions following the bombing, and his strong ties to radical Islam. Prosecutors emphasized Tsarnaev’s own connection with militant Islamic thought, providing tweets and online search history as evidence.
We often view events such as public mass killings as symptomatic of mental illness, and when those events become as widespread as they have in the past decade, we view them as symptomatic of a societal problem. Why not, then, view the black-and-white thinking with which we view these cases in the same way? Why not view them as symptomatic of society’s desire to latch on to the extreme in an effort to avoid the frustration and confusion that comes with making difficult decisions?
Black and white exists as a metaphor for life and death for a reason. There is no greater difference, no greater finality. Given the severity and finality of the outcomes, the grays of Tsarnaev’s case must ethically be considered. Perhaps he struggled with the grayness of American life and family responsibility. Perhaps it was just black or white. But because the jury does not know, they can’t choose the color.
The question has never been whether Tsarnaev is guilty, and it certainly isn’t now. The question now is: Can black-and-white evidence be used to make an intensely gray decision? Even in a country terrified of extremes, it might be the jury who will choose that most extreme option, an extreme act for an extreme act.
Perhaps they will, against odds, choose what allows us to take the high ground we’ve already rooted ourselves in. But will they even consider the gray area resting in between the arguments of the defense and the prosecution?
In our criminal justice system, gray can never really be chosen. That does not mean it must be ignored. Hyperpolarized evidence can be used to make an ethically gray call. It has for centuries. But to give that call the ethical weight it deserves, we must move away from this polarized thinking, away from fragile black-and-white reasoning.
As painful as it is (and combatting harmful thinking is always painful), we must keep in mind the individual at the core of the decision, removed of rhetoric but mindful of that person’s humanity. Even people such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and those who will come after him.
Morality has never been black and white. If it were, it wouldn’t be such a demanding philosophical concept. I’m not asking the jury to choose death or choose life. I’m merely asking them to consider gray.
Jessica Mitchell is a doctoral student in educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
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What the jury should keep in mind when sentencing the Boston bomber… http://t.co/VlzjbkruZr
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) April 30, 2015