When bad things happen to “bad” people

My friend, Pete, sporting his ink inspired by similar convos.

Not bad people, but rather a truly great guy, this is my friend sporting his ink inspired by similar convos.

I learned about the impending capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, “Boston Bombing Suspect 2,” as my mother described the event to me on the telephone.  “He is in a boat stored in the backyard of a home just three houses down from Bob’s house,” she said.  (Bob is close friend and colleague.) She added, “They can tell the suspect is alive because he’s moving around in there.”

As she described the rest of the scene, I had trouble focusing.  The words, “He’s moving around in there,” made him less monster-like to me—and more human, even childlike.  I tried to imagine what he might be thinking, coming to full-terms with what he and his brother had done.  I had been told that Dzhokar had also accidentally run over his older brother in the hijacked car earlier in the day.  I wondered if he realized that as well.  And now, as an angry, powerful army—and a frightened city—surrounded him, how could he possibly make sense of it all?  Was he asking, “How did I get here?  How did this happen?”  Was he angry?  Did he still feel justified?

The questions about how to react when bad things happen to “bad” people really first started to plague me when the details unfolded about Osama bin Laden’s final moments.  As people cheered and celebrated in the streets and online, I struggled with the notion of joy at the sad end of a life that many would describe as horrific.  (I will admit, though, that I did tell some of the jokes like “What was bin Laden’s final Facebook post? ‘BRB, someone’s @ the door.’”)

The questions returned as I read the news of people in the UK who scheduled and celebrated parties upon the death of Lady Margaret Thatcher.

And now, as more details emerge about Suspect 2, about Dzhokar, I struggle to feel joyful.

I realize that the emotional conundrum is embodied in the words justice and mercyJustice makes space to emote positively about a sense of resolution, of fairness, of a civilized response to a most uncivilized set of actions.

While the word mercy empowers me to see past the monster and into the soul of a frightened young man moving around inside a trailered-boat, coming to terms with his new reality, with our new reality.

Without mercy, the pursuit of justice runs the great risk of becoming as ugly as its antithesis.  

Mercy makes us better people as we support justice in the very somber, heavy work of standing up to evil in a collective, human response to that which surely was never meant to be.

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