Opinions, Column

Game Of Thrones & The Death Penalty

It’s Sunday and the nightmare of another school week is quickly approaching. Yet something is different about tonight: Winter is coming. With its weekend premiere, Game of Thrones began a new season of white-walker doom, sibling love, and dragon destruction. Even though Jon Snow still knows nothing, the opening episode reminded loyal fans that there will be death, and lots of it. While the trials of Westeros unfold, however, another important event is taking place as we prepare for the Boston Marathon.

In the Game of Thrones season premiere, Mance Rayder refuses to pledge his people’s loyalty to a foreign army and is thereby sentenced to death. While his actions may be deemed noble, his sentencing to death represents a system frequently used to suppress dissenters (i.e. Ned Stark) in Westeros, a land, however fictional, that is defined by war and bloodshed. Though Game of Thrones is not reality, its imitation of our old, feudal society serves as a reflection of the barbarity that marked human history. While we recognize the distinct contradictions between our society and the one of Westeros, one commonality echoes throughout the episode and our current events: the death sentence.

On April 8, the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found guilty of all 30 charges against him. Though the verdict has been reached, the trial will move to a second sentencing phase in which the jury will decide Tsarnaev’s ultimate fate: life in prison or the death sentence. While many outraged Americans call for Tsarnaev’s death, it is important to understand that the lines of justice, and ultimately morality, are easily blurred in instances of extreme violence. Therefore, the decision to take a man’s life, a terrorist or not, must be carefully examined because it reflects the innermost values of our society. It sets a precedent for how we, as the United States, respond to terrorism.

The death penalty, oftentimes, seems an outdated form of institutional punishment. While it may have been an effective barrier for stopping some of the world’s most dangerous people, the technology of our modern day prisons has increased substantially, creating facilities that can ensure the retention of inmates and the safety of the outside community. Economically, the network of legal fees and appeals that pollute a death sentence are fiscally inefficient and time consuming. A life sentence in prison additionally appears much more punitive than the death sentence, which in many ways serves as a quasi-“Get Out of Jail Free” card. Once in prison, many inmates must participate in community service, allowing even the most extreme offenders to be contributing members of society. Likewise, it seems hypocritical of us, as a country, to kill someone for murdering others. I find it difficult to imagine that killing the offender is restorative or satisfying for the victims’ families, who will never reclaim the lives of their lost loved ones.

The death penalty, however, is arguably justifiable under circumstances in which the person, while incarcerated, could motivate additional acts of terror. If such conditions hold true, then the continuation of the prisoner’s life is therein a threat to society and can rightfully be ended. While I recognize these standards perpetuate an increasingly ethical grey-area, it is important to acknowledge that perhaps the death penalty is not always morally wrong.

Nevertheless, I do not believe Tsarnaev is deserving of the death penalty.  While I will never see his actions as rectifiable, I believe that as a society we should not attempt to fight death with death. We do not live in Westeros, we live in reality. We want to bring about social justice and peace in the world, and those two values must not be exclusively withheld from certain individuals. I refuse to accept the finality of death as the solution, because in death there can never be retribution—retribution for the offender, the victims, or the witnesses. Killing Tsarnaev will simply mask the problem of terrorism, muting the violence until it reemerges in the actions of the next fanatic. We must turn to the root causes behind these offenses, searching for a solution greater than one man killing the next.


Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic

April 15, 2015